Candidates running with public funding through the Clean Elections program say a new voter-approved state law that prohibits them from paying political parties for services impedes their constitutional right to associate with whoever they choose.
This is the first election cycle since voters approved 2018’s Proposition 306, which outright banned candidates who participate in Clean Elections from directly or indirectly paying campaign funds to political parties or political action committees. Leading up to the candidate filing period, the Arizona Democratic Party actively urged candidates to eschew Clean Elections for traditional financing so they could still buy voter registration information from the party.
That led some incumbent Democrats who previously ran with Clean Elections funds to drop it, but overall numbers for participating candidates haven’t decreased, said Tom Collins, director of the Clean Elections Commission. In 2018, 32 primary candidates qualified for public financing. So far this year, 37 have.
However, Collins said, the new statute has led to multiple complaints from candidates, complaints he would prefer they take up with the legislative Republicans who drafted the law. He was the single largest contributor to the anti-306 campaign, and one current and one former commissioner unsuccessfully sued the state to keep the measure off the ballot.
“This amendment impinges on associational freedoms, which are guaranteed in the Constitution,” Collins said.
Running with public financing is such an important part of Rep. Athena Salman’s political ethos that she, Sen. Juan Mendez and newcomer Melody Hernandez call themselves the Millennial Clean Team. But the north Tempe Democrat said the new law makes her campaigning more difficult.
For one thing, Salman can’t purchase a private voter registration tracking system, the Voter Activation Network, through the Democratic Party. This limit primarily affects Democrats, as Republican candidates buy their own system, i360, a Koch brothers-founded data platform, directly from the private owner.
Salman said she also misses the ability to hire campaign staff through the Democratic Party.
“We can’t do that anymore,” she said. “In previous election cycles, we hired some phenomenal field organizers through the party.”
When lawmakers first drafted the law in spring 2018, it contained an explicit exception to allow candidates to pay parties for access to voter files. At the time, Republican lawmakers and lobbyists insisted the measure had nothing to do with weakening Clean Elections; they described it as merely a response to the 2016 election, when several Democrats paid into the party’s “coordinated campaign” fund without specifying what they received for those payments.
A Republican political consultant filed a complaint alleging that the payments were used to subsidize races in more contested districts. Collins led a Clean Elections investigation into the complaint and determined the candidates didn’t break any rules, but the commission then decided to set stricter rules governing how publicly-funded candidates could coordinate with political parties.
The new law, as amended in the Senate and approved by voters, goes much further, banning all payments to political parties. Because of that, Collins said he’s heard complaints from primarily Republican candidates who want exceptions for smaller expenses, such as paying their county parties for table space at fairs. Those candidates argue that the law was intended for a specific problem with how Democrats used Clean Elections.
“If folks for some reason believe this was intended to address a specific practice, that practice is also disallowed,” Collins said.
The law officially infringes on the ability of publicly funded candidates to associate with their party, Salman said, but perhaps more nefarious is the chilling effect it has on candidates and parties who don’t want to push boundaries or risk ending up in a lawsuit.
“I do think if there were a lawsuit Republicans would lose,” she said. “This is black and white an infringement on the Constitution.”
Bob Karp, a Democrat running a long-shot race in the southern Arizona district now represented by Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said his decision to run as a Clean Elections candidate meant he can’t even communicate with the party leaders over email anymore.
Originally, he said, he planned to drop Clean Elections because he couldn’t get any help from the state party if he ran with public financing. But Clean Elections allows him to access about $45,000, more than he could raise from private contributions.
“This is an infringement on the party’s ability to work with their candidates in any way,” Karp said. “I cannot even get a guidebook from the state party about running for office as a Democrat.”
Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, is using Clean Elections in her run for the state House. She said she already has limited interaction with the state party, but the new law prohibits her from buying voter registration information or giving any extra money left over at the end of her campaign to the county party for its election night gathering.
Running with Clean Elections means she can focus on her Senate work instead of fundraising, and she doesn’t plan to give it up, Dalessandro said. But the “silly” new law has made it harder, she said.
“I don’t know for sure, but I think there was one person in the history of Clean Elections who abused this, and the rest of us had to pay,” Dalessandro said.