The Illinois Millionaire’s Exemption and the Utility of Campaign Contribution Limits

By Nora Huppert

Illinois‘ 2014 and 2018 Gubernatorial elections raised eyebrows and drew national media attention for the astronomical amounts of money raised by the candidates in the form of direct campaign contributions, often from individual wealthy backers. These extreme campaign contributions, which in many states are strictly limited, were made possible in Illinois by operation of a unique campaign finance scheme enacted only a few years earlier. This law, meant to emulate the federal “Millionaire‘s Exemption” (or “Millionaire’s Amendment”) which had previously been held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, lifts contribution limits completely in a given race once certain conditions are met. This was intended to level the playing field by allowing “underdog” candidates facing opponents backed by wealthy interests to raise a little more money from their supporters. In these Gubernatorial elections, however, the main beneficiaries of the law were exactly those candidates who were empowered to raise many millions from individual wealthy donors.

In the aftermath of these elections, commentators began to ask whether the Illinois law was “backfiring” by simply allowing wealth-backed candidates to raise even more money from wealthy supporters. As such, this Note examines campaign finance data in recent statewide and legislative elections in Illinois in which contribution limits were lifted to analyze whether the law operated as intended. Part II explains the constitutional backdrop against which the Illinois law was enacted and the relevant scholarly and legal views on the utility of campaign contribution limits in a universe in which independent spending cannot be meaningfully regulated. Part III estimates how much the law allowed candidates in recent statewide and legislative races to raise above campaign contribution limits and analyzes the real-world effect of the law. Part IV concludes that the limits-off law fails to serve its intended purpose in practice and that its benefits are outweighed by its “floodgates” effect on select big-money races; Part IV also proposes pathways for reform that might realign campaign finance law in Illinois with the limits-off law‘s admirable rationale.

Download Article