Clean Elections: A fair shake?

Griselda Nevarez//November 1, 2010

Clean Elections: A fair shake?

Griselda Nevarez//November 1, 2010

Arizona’s Clean Elections system has had a polarizing effect on Arizona politics since becoming law in 1998. Supporters claim it eliminates the influence of special-interest money in elections, while opponents say the system is unfair and dampens free speech.

Staunch defenders of publicly funded elections, such as Clean Elections Commissioner Louis Hoffman, claim the system opens the political process to more people by neutralizing the effect money plays in elections.

Providing start-up cash to candidates — until this year, a dollar-for-dollar match was also available to candidates running against a traditionally funded candidate — allows people to run even if they have no political connections and no money, says Hoffman, who is an author of the Clean Elections Act.

“The purpose of matching funds is to provide a system where additional people can speak and enter the political forum that wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to speak or have enough money to run a campaign,” he says.

There is also a large contingent of politicos, including Arizona House candidate David Burnell Smith, who decry the system, saying it amounts to a “free ride” for participants.

Burnell Smith, who ran in 2003 as a Clean Elections candidate, was ultimately removed from office for violating the rules Clean Elections candidates must follow. This year he is running a traditionally funded campaign.

“If a person goes out to work hard, gets all the money and gets all his friends to donate, it’s not right that the other guy gets a free ride,” Smith says.

Candidates using the Clean Elections system during this election cycle cried foul earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the matching-funds component of the program in June. These candidates are barred from accepting any campaign money from sources other than the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

Matching funds were intended to act as an equalizer between Clean Elections candidates and their traditionally funded opponents. When a traditionally funded candidate spent money on campaign ads or signs, his Clean Elections opponent was awarded an equal amount of money from the commission.

When matching funds were stricken down by the court, Clean Elections candidates received only the initial disbursement of campaign cash and were barred from receiving extra money when their opponents outspent them.

Arizona Treasurer Dean Martin and other opponents of Clean Elections have taken issue with the system’s name, which they argue was designed to cast the system in a positive light.

“There’s nothing clean about Clean Elections,” Martin says. “The elections are just as dirty as any other elections. These are simply elections where some of the candidates are funded by the government as opposed to being funded by private individuals.”

In this year’s general election cycle, 84 out of 194 — slightly more than 43 percent — of candidates running for legislative and statewide offices are using the Clean Elections system.

Still, the politically uninitiated, such as Legislative District 11 Senate candidate Rita Dickinson, say Clean Elections is their key to running for office.

“I am a political outsider who is not very well-known and doesn’t have the financial stability to fund my own campaign,” Dickinson says.

Although Clean Elections allows many people to run for office who wouldn’t otherwise be able, potential candidates are not off the fundraising hook entirely. They still have to demonstrate that they have some support.

Potential Clean Elections candidates must collect and submit a set number of $5 “qualifying contributions” to qualify for Clean Elections campaign money. This money accounts for less than 1 percent of the entire Clean Elections budget.

Since its first election cycle in 2000, the commission has given out more than $44 million to candidates. Nearly 60 percent of that money comes from a surcharge added to civil penalties and criminal fines. Approximately 40 percent comes from voluntary $5 contributions made on tax-return forms. The donation results in a $5 tax credit.

For or against, the publicly funded election system brings up some strong opinions from people who use it and regulate it.

Rita Dickinson
Clean Elections Candidate, Arizona Senate

Rita Dickinson says the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on June 8 to halt the distribution of matching funds put her at a disadvantage in the Legislative District 11 Senate race.

“I’m running against a publicly funded candidate who has more money and more opportunities to advertise than I do,” she says.

Dickinson, a Democrat, has received about $35,000 from the Clean Elections Commission for her primary and general election campaigns. She cannot raise or spend any money beyond that total. Her opponent, Republican Rep. Adam Driggs, has raised more than double that amount for his run, plus has had another $57,000 worth of support from independent expenditure committees, with the majority of that spending coming from the Arizona Business Coalition.

Dickinson, a retired special-needs preschool teacher, says coming up with the money necessary to fund her campaign on her own would be difficult.

Even with the Clean Elections system, Dickinson says she is still limited in terms of money to advertise, make signs and send letters to voters. But that has not stopped her from going out and trying to gain voters’ support.

“I’m knocking on doors and making phone calls and spending as much time as I can trying to reach out to voters,” she says.

Dickinson hopes the Supreme Court will reinstate matching funds because it gives candidates the opportunity to focus on voters and eliminates the influence of special-interest groups, she says.

“It allows candidates to focus on talking and hearing the concerns of everyday constituents instead of spending most of my time fundraising,” she says.

Bob Grossfeld
President, The Media Guys

Bob Grossfeld, president of The Media Guys public relations and political consulting firm, says the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to freeze the matching-funds component of Clean Elections has made it difficult for candidates using the system to keep up with the expenditures of their traditionally funded opponents.

“Not only did we have a situation where a candidate who is being outspent cannot get any additional funds from Clean Elections, but the outside groups are now able to do whatever they want,” Grossfeld says.

In saying “outside groups are now able to do whatever they want,” Grossfeld is referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Jan. 21 in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which lifted a ban on direct campaign spending by corporations and labor unions.

Grossfeld, who is also publisher of The Arizona Guardian, says the matching funds component of Clean Elections is not meant to create identical financial situations among candidates. He says Clean Elections offers voters more candidate choices, and says matching funds gives candidates an opportunity to respond to criticism by their opponents.

“I think it is about doing something to preclude our elections from being bought and paid for by the wealthy,” Grossfeld says.

David Burnell Smith
Former Clean Elections Candidate, Arizona House

David Burnell Smith made history the first time he ran for office using the Clean Elections system, but not in the way he wanted.

In his fifth try for office, Burnell Smith, a Republican, actually succeeded in getting elected to the Arizona House seat in Legislative District 7 in 2004.

Two years later, he also became the first person ever to be removed from office for violating spending limits during his primary race imposed on candidates who use the Clean Elections system.

Burnell Smith, who also won this year’s Republican primary election in Legislative District 7, says he did not run as a Clean Elections candidate this year because candidates should work toward funding their own campaigns.

“Using Arizona taxpayer’s money, especially during a budget crunch like the one we have now, to pay for politicians’ political campaigns is wrong,” he says. “Candidates should go get their friends and their associates to help them with their campaign or help them get donations; that’s the best way to do it,” he says.

Burnell Smith says he’s serious about getting his old job back.

“I admit I made a mistake, and it came back to bite me,” he says. “This year, I put a lot of my own money in this campaign with the desire to win it, and I came through with the votes and I will do the same in the general election.”

Glenn Hamer
President and CEO, Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry

Glenn Hamer calls the matching-funds provision of Clean Elections one of the “most troublesome” aspects of the publicly funded elections system.

The president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry says matching funds is a “scheme” that discourages donors from contributing to the campaigns of traditionally funded candidates.

“A lot of entities or groups that engage in the electoral process may be chilled from exercising those rights if they know that those funds are going to be matched,” Hamer says.

Hamer also opposes matching funds on the grounds that beyond collecting the initial $5 qualifying contributions, candidates do not have to continue to court donations for their campaigns.

“They don’t have to spend any effort fundraising and they still get a check,” he says.

Hamer says any system using public money for elections should include a component of candidate self-sufficiency. Then the money used for Clean Elections candidates’ campaigns could be redirected toward areas that have been hard hit by budget cuts, including education and health care.

“To me, the burden is on the people who are the proponents of the system that’s ripping tens of millions of dollars of public funds that could be used for any other service,” he says.

Dean Martin
State Treasurer

Arizona Treasurer Dean Martin has had an odd and confusing relationship with the Clean Elections system.

Martin, one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Clean Elections, contends the system is unconstitutional because it interferes in the elections process by giving candidates using the program an advantage over those that don’t use it.

That, however, didn’t stop him from using the system during his 2010 run in the GOP primary for governor.

“It didn’t make any sense to continue to spend my time raising and spending money when it just ended up giving my opponent the same amount of money, so I thought I should just spend all my time campaigning and not spend any time raising funds,” he says.

Martin says it cost him about 20 cents to raise each dollar for his campaigns as a traditionally funded candidate. That left him with 80 cents from each dollar to use for campaign purposes, while his Clean Elections opponent received a full dollar-for-dollar match.

“Every time I ran traditional and had to face an opponent funded by Clean Elections, that person would receive more money than I did,” he says. “I would raise and collect the money myself while my opponent would end up with more funds.”

Martin also says the system actually decreases free speech.

“Clean Elections’ sole purpose is to influence elections in trying to overpower the speech of people that are not in agreement with the commission,” he says.

Supporters of Clean Elections say the program eliminates the influence of special-interest groups.

Martin says special interest groups still contribute to campaigns by helping candidates collect the initial $5 donations. Candidates also are not required to report the names of the $5 contributors, which allows special-interest groups to donate anonymously, Martin says.

“Special interests have not gotten out of politics, they are actually just harder to see now,” Martin says.

In the end, Martin was foiled by the Clean Elections system even when he tried to use it. When matching funds were stricken by the court, he was left without enough money to raise a serious challenge in the Republican primary race for governor.

Louis Hoffman
Commissioner, Citizens Clean Elections Commission

Louis Hoffman, an original drafter of the  Clean Elections Act, says the system focuses voters and candidates on the arguments by taking away the influence of a superior war chest.

“If somebody is going to say something bad about you, you have the wherewithal to fight back,” says Hoffman, who serves on the Citizens Clean Elections Commission. “Voters can then decide who to vote for by listening to the merit of the arguments and not on who has more money to run ads.”

Clean Elections also saves voters money by eliminating the influence of special-interest groups in campaigns and the pressure by candidates to “favor giant wastes of money” once in office, he says.

“Look at the waste of money from the state budget that has occurred by people paying off their donors in the form of tax cuts or programs that waste a lot of money that benefit narrow sections of the economy,” he says.

Candidates who are critical of the Clean Elections system say they’ve had to limit their campaign spending to avoid having their opponents receive an equal amount of money from the commission. But Hoffman says he has not seen evidence of that actually occurring.

“If this was true, you would see a cluster of cases where people spent right up to the limit which would trigger the matching funds and then stop, but you don’t see that kind of clustering when you look at all the races,” he says.