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Clean Elections ban a cure-all for fringe politics? Really?

Last week, MSNBC’S Keith Olbermann gleefully opined that Arizona should be sold to the Chinese government, and the state is regularly cited as a political low-water mark in publications like The New York Times. The disrespect, of course, arises from state legislation deemed inflammatory and outrageous, and it has grown to be routine. A “birther” bill here, a measure to allow guns on college campuses there. The state does produce more thoughtful and complex legislation, yet we still can’t shake the Donald Trump-levels of attention every time we do something that everybody else thinks is stupid.

The business community is launching an effort many believe will change all of that.

This can be done, they’ll quietly argue, by ridding the state of public campaign financing known as Clean Elections. The system, which allows legislative candidates to receive tens of thousands of dollars if they prove a modest level of support by collecting upwards of 200 individual contributions of $5, is said to empower too many fringe candidates who court and appeal to single-issue voters and interest groups — candidates whose campaigns would otherwise be broke and helpless.

Next November, voters will be given the opportunity to scuttle Clean Elections. The campaign in support of the ballot measure will be led by former state senator and congressional candidate Jonathan Paton and financed by interest groups like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. They’ll portray Clean Elections as a sort of welfare program for lazy politicians and a system that is open to abuses.

One thing they won’t do is name names, for fear of offending the great number of legislators who ran or have at least got their foot into the door with the help of Arizona’s public financing option. That list is long, and includes the names of notable hard-line conservatives like Ron Gould and Russell Pearce, and liberals like Kyrsten Sinema. (It should be noted that Republicans do not have a monopoly on what could be perceived as fringe legislative activity. In the middle of the state’s worst budget crisis, Democrats largely ducked making any difficult decisions and provided nearly zero input on state budget cuts. Instead, they opted for sound-bite politics aimed at portraying Republicans as miserly and mean-spirited.) Need for the system diminishes with time, as candidates become incumbents who accrue the political godsend of name-recognition.

Banning public campaign financing at this point seems like a preemptive strike aimed at cutting off access to the next batch of far-left and far-right candidates who can and do win primary elections, thanks to the help of a small number of extremely dedicated voters. But killing off Clean Elections might not produce a Legislature full of moderate officeholders who will rely on — and do the bidding of — the state’s business community. Other state legislatures, and even Congress, which don’t have public financing options, still have more than their share of otherwise colorful, if not downright ridiculous fringe candidates. The people, with their own tastes and distastes, are simply electing them. The demand for uncompromising politicians seems to be higher than ever, as does the willingness of candidates to paint complex issues like immigration, entitlements and the economy in the simplest colors available.

Clean Elections has done nothing to make political campaigns or political discourse cleaner. And, for the time being, I am not convinced that banning it will have that effect either. Hopefully, amid the usual campaign theatrics, we’ll see a well-reasoned, thoughtful debate on public campaign financing. And, if we’re lucky, we might even see at least a few voters reassess their core values and their expectations of public officials on both sides of the aisle.

— Christian Palmer is the associate editor of the Yellow Sheet Report.

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