A campaign for a proposed citizen initiative that would have dramatically expanded Arizona’s Clean Elections system for publicly funding political campaigns called it quits, saying it couldn’t collect enough signatures before the upcoming July 7 deadline because of “dirty tricks” by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.
The Arizona Clean and Accountable Elections Act needed 150,642 valid signatures to get on the November ballot. Campaign spokeswoman Julie Erfle said the campaign has collected more than 100,000 signatures so far, but was still well short of its goal.
Currently, Clean Elections candidates receive a lump sum of funding to wage their campaigns for the primary election, and receive a second distribution of cash if they make it to the general election. Prior to a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Clean Elections candidates also received “matching funds” that compensated them when their privately funded opponents or the independent expenditures that supported them spent more than public funding provided for their campaigns.
The proposed initiative would have allowed Clean Elections candidates to collect contributions of up to $160 from individual donors. The Citizens Clean Elections Commission would have then provided a whopping six-to-one match. That means that for a single $160 contribution, a candidate would have received an additional $960 in Clean Elections funding.
Erfle said the campaign, which was spearheaded by the Arizona Advocacy Network, faced “insurmountable” obstacles. First and foremost among them, she said, were the roadblocks thrown up by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, a longtime opponent of the Clean Elections system. The campaign initially planned to hire the petition-gathering firm Sign Here Petitions to collect signatures for the initiative.
But Erfle said that agreement was abruptly canceled, which she blamed on the chamber. She said the campaign was forced to find an out-of-state firm, which cost it valuable time.
The campaign also got a late start. It filed its initiative with the Secretary of State’s Office on April 12, which gave it less than three months to collect its signatures. Due to the need for a cushion to make up for invalid signatures, the campaign likely would have needed well over 200,000 signatures to ensure that the initiative got on the ballot.
Erfle insisted that the late starting date would have not have hampered the campaign were it not for the chamber’s interference. She said the record-breaking heat this summer also made it more difficult to keep petition-gatherers on the streets.
Samantha Pstross, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said in a press statement that voters should be “extremely concerned” about special interest groups’ ability to obstruct citizen initiatives.
“Regardless of how one feels about this particular initiative, petitioning our government is a right guaranteed to Arizonans in our state Constitution. Shame on the Arizona Chamber and their dark money pals for corrupting our election process and fronting these anti-Arizonan and anti-democracy shenanigans,” Pstross said in the press release.
The campaign cited a memo from the chamber in which it said it would consider legal challenges against the initiative, “as well as other means to prevent the collection of the necessary signatures.”
Chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor would not confirm or deny that the organization hired Sign Here to keep the firm from working for the initiative. But he didn’t deny that the chamber ran blocking efforts to keep the initiative off the ballot.
“We were going to do all we could to ensure that it didn’t become law. And we’re happy to see that won’t happen,” Taylor said. “What’s really at issue here is that there is a group of special interests that wanted to send to the ballot a taxpayer-funded election scheme that would have put taxpayer on the hook for autodialers and yard signs.”
Pstross said her organization would continue its fight against “the corrupting influence of money in politics” through its support for a citizen referendum effort against SB1516, an omnibus bill that includes a provision that reduces the state’s ability to enforce campaign finance laws against the anonymous campaign spending known as “dark money.” She urged Arizonans to support the effort to refer SB1516 to the ballot.l