Whither Clean Elections?

Posted on November 17, 2001 | Type: In the News
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Even though it seems we just finished the 2000 election, rumblings of the 2002 election have already begun. And next year when the political tidal wave of TV ads, mailers and roadside placards hits us, it will be boosted by $14 million-taken from Arizona residents largely without their consent, and used to subsidize politicians.

Those subsidies for politicians will come under the state's Clean Elections law, which provides an optional system of government financed campaigns for those seeking state offices. Candidates can forswear private contributions, and in return receive public subsidies for their campaigns. The purpose of the Clean Elections Act is to free legislators from the grip of special interest money. Once liberated, the theory goes, lawmakers will stop catering to wealthy special interests and instead serve the common good.

The Spring 2001 legislative session was the first with lawmakers elected with public subsidies. At the end of the session, a curious reporter went in search of any difference in the Legislature caused by the Clean Elections Act. When asked to point to a vote or position that being a publicly funded legislator helped him to take, one Clean Elections candidate pointed to his votes on abortion. Another picked out his votes on social issues, specifically in last session's debate over archaic sex laws. Abortion "Sex laws" Although both are narrow issues over which much money has been spent, it is hard to see how corporate fat cats have ever thwarted the will of the people on either issue.

A new study by the Goldwater Institute, "Is Cleanliness Political Godliness?" takes a more in-depth look at the effect of public subsidies on voting behavior. The study compares the votes of publicly and privately supported legislators on bills to the positions taken by 40 interest groups on the same bills.

The report finds no meaningful difference between how Clean Elections legislators and those who accepted private donations voted. That is, legislators who used public funds to get elected were equally likely to vote for or against most interest groups such as the Arizona Association of Industries, the Greater Phoenix Chamber, the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, the Center for Arizona Policy, Planned Parenthood, the Children's Action Alliance and the Arizona Catholic Conference as their privately financed counterparts.

These results undermine the fundamental premise of the Clean Elections Act. Apparently, subsidizing a politician's campaign at $25,000 a throw (and let's not forget money spent on those who don't win office) buys no more political independence than existed before.

There are still deeper problems with the Clean Elections law. Nearly 70 percent of the Clean Elections fund is taken involuntarily from Arizona residents: from a fee imposed only on certain lobbyists, and from a surcharge on civil and criminal penalties. The first is a tax on the exercise of the First Amendment right to petition the government; the second coerced support for political views that one may not agree with-another violation of First Amendment rights.

Finally, the act seeks to make political campaigns for office a wholly owned subsidiary of state government. This would give the state chilling power over political speech-a power whose use has already been contemplated, but has fortunately still been left alone.

Given its negligible impact, its cost, and its infringement of First Amendment rights, the Clean Elections system should be repealed. Unfortunately, the courts are virtually the only branch of government that has the power to modify or abolish the Clean Elections law. A lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice may succeed in stripping away the 70 percent of subsidy money that is coerced, effectively emasculating the act. Absent this, it is up to Arizona voters to eliminate the act through an initiative.

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