IJ-AZ Lawsuit Exposes Dirty Little Secrets Behind Arizona’s “Clean” Elections
By Frank Conti Jr.
Should the government coerce political candidates to take taxpayer money for their campaigns? And should it favor those candidates who take government subsidies and penalize those who would prefer to let the market decide if their message has value?
The Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter doesn’t think so, and that is why it filed suit in January challenging Arizona’s “Clean” Elections Act.
The website for Arizona’s “Clean Elections” Commission proudly trumpets the recent success of candidates running under the state’s public campaign financing system, narrowly passed by voters in 1998. Government-funded politicians nearly ran the table in 2002, winning seven of nine statewide races. But as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The real story isn’t how many government-funded candidates won, but how many ran. Of the nine races, only three of 18 major-party candidates opted for a traditional, privately financed campaign—a clear indication that the Clean Elections system is coercive rather than voluntary.
Consider the gauntlet Matt Salmon faced in his bid to become Arizona’s governor. The Democrats spent about $1 million for TV ads attacking Salmon that was not counted against public monies to be received by Janet Napolitano, one of Salmon’s two government-funded opponents. But when the Republicans countered with their own independent expenditure of about $330,000, the State wrote checks for that amount to both Napolitano and Independent Dick Mahoney. So the system let Napolitano take money from an independent source “under the table,” which then invited a response by Salmon supporters that resulted in still more public money flowing her way. The only difference was that, unlike Salmon, Napolitano got to decide how that money was spent.
The Clean Elections system then hampered Salmon again when it paid his opponents the gross amount of contributions he received after the primary. President Bush came to Arizona and raised $750,000 for Salmon; the event cost Salmon $250,000, leaving a net gain of $500,000. Napolitano and Mahoney each received $750,000 from the State—the amount of Salmon’s gross receipts—resulting in $1.5 million being paid out by taxpayers, and a net loss of $1 million for Salmon. Only in Arizona could a fundraising visit from the President of the United States amount to a $1 million deficit for the intended beneficiary. Under these circumstances, only the foolish, the hopelessly principled, and the fabulously wealthy will run privately funded campaigns in the future.
To run for office without public subsidies in Arizona these days, traditional candidates like Salmon must spend lots of time and resources complying with a stringent daily reporting regime—just so their government-funded opponents can be showered with more taxpayer cash. Between July 1 and Election Day, privately funded candidates must file no less than 37 special reports. Government-funded candidates must file only three reports in the same period. This makes no sense: the candidate who refuses government subsidies is subject to more regulation than those who take them.
The IJ-AZ intends to vindicate the principle that democratic elections in a free society should not be run under socialist rules—rules that take merit and the market out of the system and instead try to enforce equality at freedom’s expense.
Frank Conti Jr. is the Executive Director of the Institute for Justice Arizona.