Goldwater Institute Challenges Clean Elections Law

The Goldwater Institute just filed a lawsuit calling into question Arizona’s Clean Elections system and I’m very excited to see how it turns out. It is but a drop in the bucket in dismantling the free-speech limitations inherent in campaign finance regulation. But a drop’s a drop and the current system has always struck me as absolutely disgusting in subsidizing individuals to run for public office.

I don’t support bums on street corners and I’d don’t want to be forced to pay for politicians to campaign.

I was further heartened to know that one of the plaintiffs in the case, Tony Bouie, is running for state representative in my district. His situation is indicative of how ugly the law really is: when he, a “nonparticipating” candidate, passed a threshold of spending, his “participating” opponent in the primary got nearly a dollar for dollar matching contribution from the state.

The lawsuit correctly notes that this will have a chilling effect on political speech by both the candidates and their contributors. The ostensive purpose of the law is to level the field so that well-connected or incumbent candidates don’t have a spending advantage when campaigning. But there are a host of reasons why one candidate may raise more money than another—popularity, more drive, efficient money collection—that don’t involve any sort of corruption.

The law rewards lackadaisical campaigning: one need only read the before and after finance reports of most campaigns to see the marked difference that the Clean Elections funds engender. In countless reports I’ve surveyed, the campaigns run very lean prior to disbursement and are suddenly paying for campaign dinners, computer hardware, and cell phones once the money rushes in. That’s a mundane objection that speaks to the corrupt incentives of the system, but the real problem is far more insidious.

When faced with the significant donations and expenditures modern campaigns require, politicians seize on regulating the behavior rather than examining and addressing the causes. And the cause is very simple: getting into the halls of government and wielding ever-increasing powers is lucrative. Companies and individuals will pay substantial sums to get their needs heard because the consequences of inaction are enormous: failing to support lobbyists or make the right donations can lead to onerous regulations on your industry or even its wholesale wipeout.

Campaign contributions have not subsided after decades of regulation and restriction—they’ve just morphed and transformed to skirt the reforms. The basic problem has never been addressed: taking the incentive out of the political equation by limiting the power of government. Sadly, that sort of reform is never considered and this lawsuit—noble though futile—doesn’t attack this angle.

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