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Cleaning up clean elections

By Mark Brnovich
web posted July 12, 2004

All eyes are on Arizona. States around the nation are watching to see whether voters will agree this fall to continue paying for politicians' campaigns. Advocates for a state constitutional amendment to end the use of public money in political races have filed enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Proponents of the current system are amassing a war chest to stop the proposed change. As the rhetoric heats up, voters deserve an honest appraisal of Arizona's experience with Clean Elections.

The stated goal of Clean Elections was to encourage more candidates to run for office and ultimately, elect officials who could vote their consciences rather than appease financial backers. But the program has failed on both counts. This year, there are 25 fewer legislative candidates than in 2002, a drop of more than 10 percent. And 19 candidates for statewide office are running virtually unopposed. Furthermore, a 2003 General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that the percentage of contested races in Arizona in 2000 was about the same as in 1996, and that Arizona's public financing system had no effect on incumbent reelection rates.

But do politicians who campaign with Clean Elections money vote more independently? As columnist Molly Ivins recently put it, "One of the oldest sayings in politics is, ‘You got to dance with them what brung you.' What Clean Elections does is fix the system so that when people get elected, they got no one to dance with -- no one they owe -- except us, the people." It's a nice argument, but it just doesn't hold up. 

A 2001 Goldwater Institute analysis of legislative voting records shows voting tends to break down along party lines, regardless of the source of campaign funding. That is, legislators who use public funds to get elected are as likely as their privately financed counterparts in the same party to vote for or against legislation sponsored by special interest groups such as the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, or Planned Parenthood.

Clean Elections proponents also believed that publicly financed campaigns would improve voter turnout. However, the GAO report revealed that voter turnout in "Arizona's 2000 election did not significantly differ from prior presidential election years." In fact, voter turnout was 42 percent in 1996, the last presidential election before the adoption of Clean Elections. In 2000, the first presidential election year after Clean Elections, voter turnout remained stagnant at 42 percent.

Politicians are playing a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to defend the program that subsidizes their campaigns. Governor Napolitano, who took public financing, said, "It's not like your income-tax money is going into the Clean Elections fund." But in fact, taxpayer money does go into Clean Elections. The program is funded by surcharges on fees like parking tickets, and tax payments that tax filers can redirect from the General Fund into the Clean Elections account. That is, money that would otherwise be in the General Fund to pay for everything from highway patrolmen to the classroom goes into a fund to finance politicians' campaigns. In 2002, nearly $13 million went to politicians. An honest debate means candidly admitting that this is taxpayer money, and then asking the public whether they want to spend $13 million to support political campaigns.

Taxpayers also deserve to know how their money is spent. In the past few elections, politicians have spent our money in a variety of creative ways. Some bought radio or newspapers ads. One candidate ran an ad featuring herself in a bathing suit holding a hemp cross. Some developed creative voter outreach programs, including a group of young candidates who held voter drives in Scottsdale nightclubs outside their own districts.

Come November, Arizona voters will be able to decide whether the millions of public dollars spent on campaigns could be better used elsewhere. And they'll be able to decide whether politicians should get government subsidies for their campaigns.

In 2002, Massachusetts voters decided by a 3 to 1 margin not to fund political campaigns. Arizona voters now have the chance to do the same this November.

Mark Brnovich is the director for Goldwater Institute's Center for Constitutional Government. © 2004

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