Federal Judge Strikes Down Campaign Matching Funds in AZ


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A federal judge has overturned Arizona’s misguided “Clean Elections” system, once touted as a national model, on First Amendment grounds.

The system was a terrible idea from the start.

Clean Elections gathered involuntary contributions from sources such as surcharges on parking tickets, and created a funding source for political campaigns. A candidate could run “clean” by gathering a proscribed number of $5 donations, and then would receive state funding.

Worse still, when facing an opponent raising funds the old fashioned way, the “clean” candidate would receive matching funds from Clean Elections. It is this matching provision which has been found unconstitutional in case brought by the Goldwater Institute.

So what was so bad about “Clean Elections” after all? Plenty. For starters, it represents involves compelled political speech. Second, it is subject to all sorts of gaming, some of which we have seen unfold, and some of which has yet to come.  The Phoenix New Times did a great job of laying out the gaming going on, including Republicans apparently recruiting Green Party candidates for legislative races that the real Green Party people had never met.

Greg Patterson, a former state lawmaker and Republican Arizona blogger, has delighted in noting that although Clean Elections was a project of Progressives, that one of the main results have been a more conservative state legislature. The centrist O’Connor House Project sums it up nicely:

Kill Clean Elections: Voters approved this system of publicly financed campaigns in 1998, hoping to reduce the influence of private donors and give less-wealthy candidates a better shot. Over the ensuing decade, though, Clean Elections has proved adept at helping extremists of both parties get elected. In a traditional campaign setting, the political views of these folks would prevent them from raising enough money to mount a legitimate campaign. But with Clean Elections, they need only collect a minimum number of $5 contributions to qualify for public funding. Talk of dissolving the system may be the nearest to bipartisan consensus of any of the government reforms being discussed.

Finally, the system works as an incumbency protection racket. If you are an incumbent with strong name recognition, you can run “clean” and the battlefield tilts decidedly in your favor and against any relatively unknown challengers. An unknown often needs the opportunity to purchase their name recognition, but the paltry base amounts provided by Clean Elections don’t allow for this. A traditionally financed candidate faces the disadvantage of having matching funds provided to their opponent, begging the question as to why anyone would make a donation to their campaign simply to watch it get matched by Clean Elections.

There are more problems still, more than I have time to write about.

The Goldwater Institute has received some grumbling about why it is we don’t like a system that helped produce a more conservative legislature. Note however that that same system ensured Janet Napolitano’s initial election as Governor (she ran clean, a Republican Congressman ran traditional, JNap won by 12,000 votes) and, oh yeah, IT’S JUST WRONG.  Political free speech ought to be protected as a sacred right. Speaking only for myself (GI hasn’t developed a position on this) the only requirement I believe is appropriate for campaign contributions is transparency- campaigns should take money from whomever they want, with the proviso that they report everything they take in a timely fashion.

Congratulations to GI’s Nick Dranias and the entire litigation team for a job well done.

5 Responses to Federal Judge Strikes Down Campaign Matching Funds in AZ

  1. Patrick says:

    Great work…clean elections was such a bad idea.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Nick tells me that today’s decision is the best First Amendment decision he’s ever read.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    That’s not a very high standard, is it?

  4. […] Ladner goes all off education and writes about the U.S. Supreme Court’s strike down of campaign finance limits on corporate donations. […]

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