Clean Elections Law Not Doing Job

Posted on August 31, 2002 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Robert J. Franciosi
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Before the 2000 election, in a briefing about the new Clean Elections law, state Elections Director Jessica Funkhouser gave the treasurers of Arizona political campaigns this tongue-in-cheek advice: "Go back to campaign headquarters and trick somebody else into doing the job."

Two years later, the tangle of legal and regulatory red tape surrounding political elections has already snared at least 11 candidates. By my last count, six candidates have been cited by the Clean Elections Commission and five more face complaints.

Most of the violations have arisen because candidates failed to report campaign expenditures. However, candidates have also been cited for accepting too much money, spending money at the wrong time, or failing to make a required appearance. When snared, candidates and their helpers usually plead that they were confused by the complexity of the regulations.

It is ironic that a law intended to make running for office more accessible has instead made campaigning a regulatory nightmare. Instead of discussing issues, candidates are explaining accounting lapses. Instead of spending money to reach voters, they are spending it on lawyers.

Last week, Arizona narrowly avoided the spectacle of a leading candidate for attorney general being struck from the ballot. The Clean Elections law has also provided opportunities for sabotage, as candidates complain to the Clean Elections Commission about their rivals.

Continued support for the Clean Elections law, and for Arizona's restrictions on privately funded campaigns, is based on a belief in two myths about money and politics. The first myth is that there is a direct connection between money and influence. However, analysis of the actual performance of Clean Elections legislators in Arizona suggests that they do not vote differently than privately funded legislators from the same party.

The second myth is that money given by private donors is a unique source of political influence. This obsession with money overlooks numerous other ways of influencing candidates. Is a politician less beholden to a union that gathers the $5 contributions to qualify for Clean Elections money than to a trade association that donates the same amount in one lump sum?

In addition to raising money, candidates enlist the aid of volunteers from unions and other organizations. They solicit endorsements from newspapers, celebrities and political bigwigs. Incumbent candidates can attract a great deal of press attention without spending a dime. To discriminate solely against cash money is arbitrary and illogical.

Fueled by these myths about money and politics, the Clean Elections law seeks to put political candidates on the public dole. Those who run for office with private support are hampered by draconian limits on donations and harassed by reporting requirements.

Another myth is the idea that the public has a right to know who is donating to a political candidate or ballot initiative, and who is paying for political advertisements. However, this purported right is in conflict with the right to privacy and the right of association.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the vital relationship between privacy and the freedom of association in its 1958 decision in NAACP vs. Alabama. Alabama had demanded that the NAACP turn over its membership lists, but the civil rights organization knew that doing so would expose its members to hostility, reprisals and physical danger. The Supreme Court agreed, and the lists remained confidential.

Thankfully, political activists in Arizona do not run the risk that members of the NAACP did in Alabama more than 40 years ago. Nevertheless, public disclosure has a potential chilling effect on political activity by opening up to harassment the supporters of a candidate or cause. Disclosure has added little to Arizona politics other than a heavy burden of paperwork for political organizations and a fecund source of ad hominem attacks.

If Arizona voters are serious about enhancing democracy, they should repeal the Clean Elections law, along with the state's other burdensome campaign regulations. Between Clean Elections, private funding limitations and disclosure requirements, it sometimes seems that the only people who are fully free to exercise their political rights are the vandals who deface campaign signs. At least they manage to avoid the paperwork.

Robert Franciosi is director of Urban Growth and Economic Development Studies at the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank in Phoenix.

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