Arizona considers repeal of “Clean Elections”

It’s been clear to most observers for quite some time that so-called “clean elections” programs in Arizona and Maine have failed to live up to their promises. More appropriately considered welfare for politicians, “clean elections” diverts scarce taxpayer dollars from public priorities in a futile effort to insulate candidates from the allegedly “corrupting” influence of citizens who wish to support them.

Arizona first adopted “clean elections” for the 2000 election cycle. In the time since “clean elections” were first introduced, the Copper State has seen:

All of these, needless to say, are the opposite of what “clean elections” advocates predicted. So it should not come as a surprise that legislation has been introduced in Arizona to repeal their “clean elections” program. The Arizona Daily Star writes:

To the list of great oxymorons like jumbo shrimp, elevated subway and small crowd, Arizona offers “clean elections.”

Since Arizona voters approved the Citizens Clean Elections Act, the state’s elections have been anything but neat and tidy. Some races are as dirty and slick as ever.

The only real difference between now and 10 years ago is that taxpayers are voluntarily footing more of the politicians’ bills. Perhaps it’s time for voters to reconsider or revamp this public-financing system that hasn’t quite lived up to its promise.

Clean Elections first took effect in the 2000 elections. After five election cycles, it’s difficult to say whether the state is better off.

A clean sweep

State Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson…has introduced a bill, SCR 1025, that would ask voters to amend the state Constitution so that no taxpayer funds could be spent on candidates or campaigns for statewide offices or the Legislature.

“I think we had this idea that with Clean Elections we’d get great, progressive candidates; people that didn’t have special-interest money behind them – like a ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ ” Paton said, referring to the 1939 movie in which an idealist is appointed to the U.S. Senate and quickly discovers the harsh realities of politics.

“But no matter how you look at it, from the liberal perspective or the conservative, this law has not done what it was intended to do. It has lowered the quality of the Legislature; it has empowered special-interest groups; it has failed to stop money from going into politics; and it has made it more difficult to educate the public about candidates.”

Todd Lang, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission… said the success of Clean Elections is evidenced by the growing number of politicians who have taken part in the system over the years…

However, increased participation may not necessarily mean the program is successful or that it benefits the state. It may simply mean that some politicians would rather take a handout than raise money.

…No longer does someone have to be a good communicator with moderate, centrist ideas to get money and support. If your ideas are on the fringe – either the far left or the far right – you can still get a check from Clean Elections if you qualify.

“Now all someone needs to do is find a very talented campaign manager who can produce slick mailings that are aggressive and attack-oriented. And they win,” Paton said.

…[P]oliticians have learned how to “game the system” by taking advantage the matching-funds provision… Every two years, the system sets an amount it will give to candidates… However, if a privately funded candidate goes over those limits, Clean Elections will match those funds up the three times the preset amount.

The system can… be manipulated when traditional candidates pour money into their own campaigns, trigger matching funds for their “clean” opponents and then team up with one or more of those candidates against the other opponents.

This happened in the 2008 race for the Arizona Corporation Commission when privately-funded candidate Sam George, a Democrat, poured roughly $540,000 into his campaign, triggering matching funds for all five of his “clean” opponents – two Democrats and three Republicans.

George then campaigned jointly with the other two Democrats, running as the “solar team” against the three Republicans. In effect, his contributions to his campaign may have tripled if he and his “teammates” pooled their funds…

[L]ooking back at the program’s first decade, some of the results are questionable.

Based on recent unimaginative budget cuts that have disproportionately targeted education and social services, Clean Elections hasn’t produced a Legislature many Arizonans can be proud of. And state government seems more polarized than ever.

Many of the Legislature’s moderates have lost in recent elections, falling victim to ideologues who give more power to the ideologically driven majority in the state’s halls of power…

Also, as seen in recent elections, money still plays a key role in elections and people have come up with ways to manipulate the system for political gain.

Voters created Clean Elections, so it’s only fair they decide its fate. Paton’s bill would give Arizonans the opportunity to review the campaign-finance system and decide whether it’s worth keeping.

A legislator in Maine has introduced legislation that would get rid of that state’s own failed experiment with taxpayer-funded political campaigns. While both undoubtedly face an uphill struggle in the face of opposition from so-called “reformers” and politicians who have gotten used to being on the dole, we hope a serious evaluation of “clean elections” in these two states will lead more to recognize that these programs have simply not lived up to their hype.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.