Following a wave of corruption scandals, Arizona’s voters in 1998 embarked on an ambitious experiment in campaign funding aimed at diminishing the influence of special interests.
The voters passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act, which allowed candidates to fund campaigns with money from the state — so long as they forswore contributions from private sources.
The act created a level playing field for rich and not-so-rich candidates, but it also unleashed a flood of complaints that it was a waste of government money and unfair to savvy fundraisers.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a constitutional challenge to the Arizona law brought by the conservative Goldwater Institute and the libertarian Institute for Justice.
Legal experts say the act’s chances of survival are not good.
“I’d be surprised if they went our way,” said Todd Lang, executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, pointing to an emergency order last June from the high court that, on a 5-4 vote, blocked the commission from sending out matching funds during the 2010 campaign.
Campaign funding reforms have been on a historic losing streak in the last five years, unable to stand against a high court majority that says free speech requires free spending.
Three years ago, in a little-noticed decision, the court’s conservative bloc said the government may not seek to equalize spending between candidates competing for private funds. That ruling triggered the legal attack against Arizona’s law.
This is “an important test of how far this Supreme Court is prepared to go to overturn the nation’s anti-corruption campaign finance laws,” said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime defender of limits on money in politics. If election spending cannot be limited and public funding is struck down, “then corporations, bundlers and big givers will be free to dominate elections,” he said.
In its short life, the act has had a significant effect on local elections.
David Schapira, a 31-year-old former high school math teacher who is the youngest member of the state Senate as well as its Democratic leader, credits his rapid rise in politics to the Clean Elections Act.
Schapira was teaching in Tempe and believed education needed a stronger voice in the Legislature when he decided to run for office. He also had a deep interest in politics, having worked briefly in Washington for Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Schapira ran for a state House seat against a Republican incumbent with the help of about $30,000 in public funds. Candidates qualified for the funds by getting $5 contributions from 220 residents. They were then eligible for a public grant in exchange for taking no more private money.
If they were being outspent by their opponent, they could get extra “matching funds” from the state to keep pace. Schapira used the money to send out mailers. He also knocked on thousands of doors — and won.
“I don’t think I could have won that first race without it,” he said last week as he juggled the duties of managing an amendment on the Senate floor and arranging a baby-sitter for the evening.
The state money, he said, “levels the playing field. It allows people to run who are not wealthy and who don’t have wealthy friends.”
But from the beginning, the law was opposed by the state Chamber of Commerce, which has argued that it is a burden on the state and hasn’t really changed the complexion of campaigns. The chamber also is leading a drive to put a repeal measure on the ballot.
“In these dark budget times, it is obscene to spend public dollars on political campaigns,” said Glenn Hamer, president of the state chamber. “I also laugh at the phrase ‘clean elections.’ I don’t think we have cleaner or more positive campaigns. Public dollars allow the candidates to torch each other.”
In addition to the legal issue, some critics say that by giving money to untried and untested candidates, the act has created a Legislature that is more partisan and rancorous. It has also helped grass-roots conservatives oust veteran Republicans.
“Clean Elections was designed by liberals to get more of their own elected, but the opposite happened,” said Al Melvin, a strongly conservative retired Navy captain who ran for the state Senate three years after moving to Arizona and won with $90,000 in public funds. “I probably would not be in the Senate today if it wasn’t for ‘clean elections.’”
The lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, state Sen. John McComish, a Republican from suburban Phoenix, said the extra matching funds are “fundamentally unfair” to candidates who rely on private money.
He gave an example from one of his close races. When an outside group spent $5,000 to support him, his three opponents in the race each received an extra $5,000.
“I got $5,000 I didn’t ask for. It paid for a flyer that was not very good, and then I had three times as much spent against me. And I damn near lost,” he said.
Several states, including Maine, Connecticut and Florida, have adopted public funding for state candidates, but their plans are also under attack in the courts.
About a dozen cities, including Los Angeles and New York, also offer public funds to municipal candidates.