Rule of Law

The dirty little secret of Arizona’s Clean Elections


The Arizona Republic
The dirty little secret of Arizona’s Clean Elections
By E. J. Montini
May 13, 2011


The folks who support Arizona’s Clean Elections law (and I used to be one of them) will tell you that opinion polls show that the vast majority of us still approve of the law that funds political candidates with public money.

We passed Clean Elections by statewide vote in 1998, when Arizona still was getting over the “AzScam” political-corruption scandal. We believed that outside money posed too much of a threat to the state’s political system. Clean Elections was a way to level the playing field, remove the influence of private money and encourage new, untainted candidates to get into politics.

The law has done all of those things, exceeding expectations and resulting in a system that can only be described as a tremendous . . . disaster.

Public-opinion polls are all about how you phrase the question. For instance:

Would you support Arizona’s Clean Elections law knowing that the current Legislature, which has many publicly-funded candidates, slashed education funding, tossed over 200,000 people off the health-care rolls, passed enormous costs onto county and local governments, came close to seceding from the union and still managed to approve idiot proposals like officially designating a state gun?

That’s what I thought.

Here’s the dirty little secret about Clean Elections: It doesn’t work.

Still, I’ve been told recently that the Fiesta Bowl scandal demonstrates the value of Clean Elections. The argument goes like this:

Right now the U.S. Supreme Court is trying to decide if it should gut the Clean Elections law. The justices are considering a lawsuit brought by state Sen. John McComish and others. Meantime, McComish is among the elected officials who had to amend financial disclosure reports after acknowledging they had accepted free trips from the Fiesta Bowl.

In response, Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a non-profit group that supports Clean Elections, wrote, “McComish is becoming Exhibit A in why the Supreme Court should reject his claim.”

If the Supreme Court chooses to leave Clean Elections intact, voters will get a chance to repeal the law in 2012 based on a ballot proposal approved in the last legislative session. Or maybe they won’t.

A coalition of folks who support Clean Elections has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of that ballot measure, saying that the language used in it is “dishonest.”

In a news release, Sam Wercinski of the Arizona Advocacy Network said, “Clean Elections supports government of, by and for the people of Arizona. In every poll since passage by voters in 1998, Arizonans overwhelmingly support the Clean Elections Act and vehemently oppose its repeal.”

Nick Dranias, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute, doesn’t see it that way.

“Once you’ve tamped down and regulated the money a person can contribute to campaigns, the bribes go to things like junkets,” Dranias told me. “That’s what the Fiesta Bowl proves. We ought not to be pretending that if we pinch down on this side of the balloon that the other part wouldn’t expand.”

Clean Elections candidates collect $5 donations until they qualify to receive a lump sum of public money. The funds come from voluntary taxpayer contributions and from civil and criminal fines. A Clean Elections candidate also can get additional money, depending on what his or her opponent spends. The theory is that publicly-funded candidates are less likely to fall under outside influence.

That sounds good. Just as the name “Clean Elections” sounds good. Who wouldn’t support that?

Unfortunately, what sounds good in theory doesn’t always work in the real world. We don’t need lawyers, think-tank experts or politicians to convince us. And we don’t need the Fiesta Bowl scandal to prove it.

All we have to do is look at the Legislature and what it has done. I have no problem with wealthy kooks and zealots financing political kooks and zealots.

But should the rest of us have to?