Court Bans Union Coordination of Campaign Volunteers

The Colorado Court of Appeals held today that the Colorado Education Association and Poudre Education Association illegally contributed to the campaign of State Senate Candidate Bob Bacon in Senate District 14 by coordinating the efforts of union member volunteers to distribute his literature.  An administrative hearing had exonorated the teacher’s unions, based on an exemption for volunteer services in the campaign laws, but that decision was reversed in this appeal.

The ruling imposes unprecedented limitations on union political activity.

Colorado’s campaign finance laws limit contributions of things of value from unions in a campaign coordinated with a candidate.  It also provides an exception for volunteer services provided without compensation.  Before this ruling, most union officials had interpreted the ban as limiting only monetary contributions to candidates (subject to specific exceptions in the statute), not volunteer efforts on behalf of candidates.

The facts in this case were largely undisputed.  Bacon’s campaign arranged to have volunteer union members, at sessions organized by the union, distribute literature provided by Bacon’s campaign to homes in the district.  Bob Bacon, a Larimer County Democrat, went on to win the election with about 56% of the vote, in a race against Republican Ray Martinez and Libertarian Mark Brophy.

While the Court discussed whether the activity was coordinated with the campaign, and discussed whether distributing literature was really something of value, the real issue was the scope of the volunteer services exception.

The Court of Appeals held, contrary to the expectations of many, including the unions, that Colorado’s campaign finance law’s exception for volunteer services applies only to services provided by individuals, and not to volunteer services coordinated by organizations.

The analysis of the Court of Appeals on this key issue did not reference any prior cases on the subject.  It simply applied what it felt was the plain language of the volunteer services exception which does not count as a contribution: “services provided without compensation by individuals volunteering their time on behalf of a candidate.”  It held that union coordination of volunteer efforts went beyond the scope of this exemption.

While the penalties the unions face on remand are not great, they may choose to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court because of the great impact it has on the political power of all unions in the State of Colorado.

Cross Posted at Wash Park Prophet.

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Andrew Oh-Willeke

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