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Wednesday, 06 April 2011 10:44

The Supreme Court’s Distorted View of Arizona Clean Elections Matching Funds

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Arizona’s Clean Elections law has been in effect for 13 years and 7 election cycles (since 1998), during which hundreds of candidates have “run clean”, and many have won, legislative and state-wide office, including two successful gubernatorial candidates. Clean Elections has been credited with reducing the influence of special interest wealth over government; with diversifying the government in terms of race, language and economic class of elected officers; and with increasing both the participation and the influence of nonwealthy citizens in the political process.

The Clean Elections law is now under attack by the special interests who feel that their wealth has been politically blunted by the law. The case McComish v Bennett now being heard by the Supreme Court concerns whether the Clean Elections matching funds provision violates (1) a wealthy candidate’s first amendment right to spend his money, and (2) the fourteenth amendment by regulating campaign financing to equalize resources among competing candidates and interest groups, rather than advancing a compelling state interest in the least restrictive manner.” (Source,

First, a few facts about how Arizona’s Clean Elections law works. A Clean Elections candidate agrees to forgo all private financing, then collects qualifying donations of $5 each from registered voters in the district. The required number of contributions ranges from 200 to 4000 depending on the office being sought. Qualified candidates are given a lump sum that is deemed sufficient to run a competitive campaign. If a nonparticipating (privately financed) candidate outspends the “clean” candidate, additional “matching” funds are provided, up to three times the lump sum. If the privately financed candidate spends even more, no further funds are provided. The system is designed only to give a publicly financed candidate enough funds to be competitive, not to match the opposition dollar for dollar.  Clean Elections has worked well, even against very wealthy privately financed opponents ... and therein lies the source of the complaint that brings it into the Supreme Court.

The plaintiff’s lawyer argues that the law impinges on his wealthy client’s 1st amendment rights because, by spending his money, he triggers the state to grant a benefit to his “clean” opponent. Justice Kennedy also voiced a concern that the law might “limit speech” by discouraging wealthy candidates from spending, for fear of the matching funds.

But there are other stakeholders whose first amendment rights must also be considered. These are the majority of Arizona citizens who voted for the Clean Elections referendum, and who, year after year, poll hugely in favor of the law. These citizens’ rights to free speech and political participation were essentially nonexistent in the pre-Clean Elections era, when private money alone dictated political outcomes. Their rights will be weakened if the law that they voted for is whittled away by the Supreme Court. To do so because special interest wealth feels constrained (though not prevented) from asserting its rights to spend more money is just wrong.{jcomments on}

Last modified on Wednesday, 06 April 2011 10:46

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