Research Shows Clean Elections’ Harms

May 25, 2011

In Arizona’s so-called “Clean Elections” system—the program at issue in the U.S. Supreme Court case IJ argued in March—each time a privately supported candidate or an independent group spends a buck over a government-set limit, the publicly funded opponent gets another buck. It is not hard to see how these “matching funds” discourage speech by those not on the dole.

Nonetheless, throughout the Institute for Justice’s First Amendment challenge to the law, Clean Elections’ backers have denied matching funds have any effect on speech. That is why, as part of our strategic research program, we asked University of Rochester political scientist David Primo to examine the law’s effect.

Primo found that privately funded candidates, especially in competitive races, delay speaking until late in the campaign so that any matching funds are delivered too late to be of much use to an opponent. That means less time for candidates to speak and less time for voters to consider the message. Surveys of candidates and independent groups by others, including the federal Government Accountability Office, back up Primo’s findings.

Although Clean Elections’ defenders have tried to ignore or dismiss this evidence, it appears to have made an impact on at least one member of the High Court. Justice Scalia pointed to this research during oral argument as proof of harm to First Amendment rights. Hopefully, Justice Scalia and his colleagues will see fit to put an end to this speech-chilling law once and for all.

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