Boca Raton teen wins battle for campaign contribution rights
A tenacious Boca Raton 17-year-old has helped other kids gain equal footing with adults in the political arena, after a federal judge sided with her and blocked a state law capping political contributions by minors at $100.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams on Monday issued a temporary injunction blocking officials from enforcing the decades-old cap, saying the law “had a chilling effect on the free speech and associational rights” of Julie Towbin and other teenagers.
The ACLU of Florida filed the lawsuit in Miami on behalf of Towbin, who found out about the law after she was invited to a Palm Beach County Democratic Executive Committee dinner. Towbin, a member of the committee, wanted to buy the $150 ticket but was told that might be a violation of state campaign finance laws.
Towbin said she researched the issue and discovered that Florida law limits political contributions by minors to $100, while anyone over age 18 can contribute up to $500. Towbin contacted the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections, the Palm Beach County State Attorney, Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office and the Florida Elections Commission. No one could tell her she wouldn’t be charged with a crime if she bought the ticket, she said. The Florida Elections Commission told her that buying the $150 ticket would be a misdemeanor because she was 17, she said.
Towbin then turned to the ACLU for help. ACLU of Florida lawyer Randall Marshall filed the lawsuit against then-Palm Beach County State Attorney Michael McAuliffe and the members of the Florida Elections Commission in January.
“I’m really excited,” Towbin, who graduated from Spanish River High School this spring said Tuesday. “Minors now can have a voice and can participate in the political process just like everyone else.”
It was unknown Tuesday whether the state attorney’s office would appeal the injunction.
In the court filings, McAuliffe argued that imposing a lower cap on childrens’ campaign contributions helps prevent corruption by preventing others from funneling contributions through them.
“There is no evidence of a large aggregate impact from excessive minor contributions,” Williams wrote in her 36-page order granting an injunction against the statute. “Further, there is no evidence that illegal parental conduit contributions present a real harm in Florida. Whatever can be said of the record, there is certainly no evidence that would justify such an austere limit on all minor contributions.”
McAullife also argued that “the same factors that mitigate against the execution of minors provide a solid basis for Florida’s position that they are more easily influenced into becoming conduits for the donations of others than adults.”
Williams conceded that children do have some different rights than adults. But she rejected the notion that “the state has an unspecified interest in protecting children from their parents.”
Echoing the judge’s ruling, Towbin said state law already criminalizes making campaign contributions in the name of someone else.
“So they would be committing a crime already, as it is,” Towbin, who served as a congressional page last year. Towbin, a member of the National Youth Rights Association, is among three teens cited for violating West Palm Beach’s teenage curfew. The teens challenged the curfew in court but the suit was dismissed by the judge.
The ACLU decided to pursue the political contribution case in part because of “the initiative that Julie took to assert her rights,” Marshall said.
“We looked at the statute and saw that, given the way that campaign finance has transformed in this country, the notion that she should be limited to $100 as opposed to $500 just made no sense to us. It was an almost arcane law that just couldn’t stand,” he said.
Now that she can’t be charged with a crime, Towbin said she plans to contribute to a school board candidate and a candidate for the state House.
Towbin, who turns 18 in September, is thrilled about casting her first vote in the presidential election in November. But she was modest about her victory.
“I think anyone who has a desire to asset their rights and knows what their rights are would do the same thing. I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary,” she said.
Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012
The Palm Beach Post