Restore free speech by ending Clean Elections - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Restore free speech by ending Clean Elections

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Posted: Thursday, January 14, 2010 2:44 pm | Updated: 3:38 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Sean Parnell: Defenders of free political speech have long opposed Arizona's Clean Elections system because it soils the First Amendment. It's time to finish the task of restoring a free exchange of ideas in Arizona's political campaigns.

Defenders of free political speech have long opposed Arizona's Clean Elections system because it soils the First Amendment. And Friday, a federal judge will hear arguments on a request to permanently block the matching funds component of the system, allowing candidates and their supporters to speak freely during this year's state elections.

Matching funds give government-subsidized participating candidates nearly a dollar for every dollar privately raised or spent by a traditional candidate or by citizens who join together in an issue advocacy group. More than a year ago, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn O. Silver preliminarily ruled that the matching funds provision is unconstitutional.

The question is whether she will again delay her final ruling because candidates already raising money to leverage taxpayer funds argue that the state shouldn't change campaign finance rules midstream. Fortunately, the case for a swift and decisive blow to the program, which is operated by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, is compelling.

Matching funds punish traditional candidates and their supporters by causing their campaign speech to fund the hostile speech of opposing candidates, forcing them to think twice before raising or spending money that might trigger matching funds for their foes. This chilling effect on free speech has not cleansed politics, it has only made the system worse.

Passed narrowly by Arizona voters in 1998, Clean Elections has not improved governance in Arizona. Prominent backers, like former state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson, have said they regret pushing the scheme. Since 1998, every state that put the idea to a public vote has rejected this experiment with government subsidized elections, most by 2-to-1 margins, begging the question, "What did they learn from Arizona's failed experiment?" The Connecticut Legislature passed a similar program in 2005, but a judge ruled it unconstitutional last year.

The truth is that Clean Elections has not made races more competitive, it has not ended dirty politics, it has not diversified the state Legislature and it has not curbed interest group influence.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, for example, just announced she is the first candidate to raise the contributions necessary to qualify for the system, providing fresh evidence that the program favors incumbents with established connections. Genuine, first-time candidates often find themselves working hand-in-hand with political operatives and interest groups who help them qualify for government subsidies by bundling the requisite number of $5 qualifying donations.

Rep. Doug Quelland, R-Phoenix, was recently threatened with removal from office for illegally exceeding spending limits. In the same race, a Republican housewife changed her registration to run as a "clean" Green Party candidate - an action most political observers understood as a brazen dirty trick to undermine the Democratic incumbent. She garnered more than 2,000 votes, enough to help sway the election to Quelland, who won by a fourth of that margin.

In fact, Clean Elections has handed the keys of the state treasury to political action committees and political candidates, who have learned how to game the system to thwart political rivals and channel millions of dollars in matching funds to preferred candidates. Other candidates have treated government grants as slush funds, splurging on alcohol, lavish dinners for staffers and other luxuries. Ostensibly designed to curb the influence of powerful lobbyists, the Clean Elections commission itself stretched the limits of the public's credulity by hiring a powerful lobbyist, G. Michael Williams, in early 2007 to ensure its continued control over Arizona campaigns.

Enough is enough. Candidates running this year have received ample notice that Arizona's welfare for politicians program has grave constitutional problems. If they don't think so, what part of Judge Silver's order - "Plaintiffs have established that the Matching Funds provision of the Act violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution" - did they not understand?

It's time to finish the task of restoring a free exchange of ideas in Arizona's political campaigns.

Sean Parnell is president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a Washington-based nonprofit group founded to protect the First Amendment political rights of speech, assembly and petition. CCP filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this lawsuit, formally known as McComish v. Bennett.

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