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A Democracy of Voters, Not Dollars

After the Supreme Court voted to throw out one provision of Arizona’s public financing law, lawmakers across the country should adopt small donor matching programs without delay.

  • Adam Skaggs
July 14, 2011

Crossposted at Huffington Post.

Last week, a campaign finance watchdog group blasted Rep. Mike Simpson, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, for using his position to dole out major favors to big money campaign backers. Simpson’s subcommittee rewarded agribusiness backers — who have given his campaigns at least $643,000 — with exemptions that weaken rules on greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. For oil and gas interests that gave Simpson more than $131,000, the subcommittee expanded offshore drilling and restricted the EPA’s ability to limit pollution stemming from these new exploration permits.

When handing out political favors like these is standard operating procedure, it is not surprising that many Americans fear our elected officials are more interested in doing what their campaign donors want — instead of what’s in the public’s interest.

This same story played out two decades ago in Arizona, during the 1990s “AzScam” scandal. After a video camera caught a politician illegally collecting campaign cash in a duffle bag — and 10 percent of the state legislature was indicted in a sweeping corruption scandal — Arizonans enacted a clean elections law that provided public funds to political candidates. The law aimed to make sure lawmakers would act to benefit the public, not campaign benefactors.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court considered one provision of Arizona’s law — its “triggered matching funds.” These provided supplemental funding to publicly financed candidates who faced high spending opposition.

By a 5–4 vote, the Court struck down the triggers, concluding they disadvantaged privately funded candidates and interest groups who oppose publicly financed candidates. Essentially, the majority declared that under the Constitution, it is less important to promote speech by candidates who can’t run without public funds than it is to ensure that wealthy, self-funded candidates and special interests can speak free of response.

Put differently, the Roberts Court recognized a series of new “rights” under the First Amendment: a right to speak without any response, a right to preserve your monetary advantage in political debate — even a right to purchase the silence of any potential political rivals.

Surely, this is not what the Framers of the First Amendment had in mind.

Justice Elena Kagan’s eloquent dissent explained clearly how the five-justice majority got it wrong. The law didn’t in any way reduce or burden speech, Kagan wrote. “What the law does — all the law does — is fund more speech. And under the First Amendment, that makes all the difference.”

However misguided, the majority’s decision was a relatively narrow one, limited to the specific trigger provisions at issue. Reports of the demise of public financing as a whole are greatly exaggerated. Even the majority recognized that voluntary public financing without triggers is fully constitutional.

That is crucial, because no reform works better than public financing to fight corruption and restore confidence in our democracy. In Arizona and dozens of other jurisdictions, public financing has effectively constrained political corruption.

Despite the proven successes of various campaign finance reforms, the current Supreme Court has shown severe hostility to any attempt to reduce the influence of money in our elections. As recently as 2003, the Court upheld most of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. But since John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined the Court, things have changed — dramatically.

Five times in five years, the Roberts Court considered a campaign finance case. Five times, including in Citizens United, the court struck down attempts to address the domination of elections by corporate and special interests.

In its latest decision, the Court said triggers make opponents refrain from political spending because their spending causes extra money to be disbursed to candidates they oppose. In reality, empirical analyses of political spending in Arizona (and elsewhere) confirm that triggers haven’t deterred any spending. Overall political spending increased substantially after Arizona adopted public financing. Triggers saved taxpayer money from being wasted in uncompetitive contests where additional funds were not needed.

And they made Arizona’s clean elections law a tremendous success. A clear majority of likely voters in Arizona said in 2010 that they supported public financing; just 7 percent disapproved. Candidates from across the political spectrum have participated — incumbents and challengers, Republicans and Democrats — and with public financing, competition in Arizona elections has improved and there have been fewer uncontested elections.

Public funding ensures that voters remain at the center of our democracy — and that elections aren’t bought and paid for by special interests. Public financing limits the influence of big money campaign donations, encourages candidates with limited resources to run for office, and increases competitiveness and diversity in elections. It frees politicians from the burden and distraction involved in constant fundraising. And for more than a decade, public financing in Arizona prevented another scandal like AzScam.

New York City also adopted public financing after a major corruption scandal more than 20 years ago. New York’s program is a resounding success, and it provides a model for other jurisdictions. New York’s law doesn’t include triggers like Arizona’s. Instead, it matches small donations from city voters — with a 6 to 1 match of contributions up to $175.

Small donor matching programs fuse fundraising and voter outreach efforts by encouraging candidates to spend time reaching out to ordinary voters, not fat-cat donors. They supercharge the power of small donations and promote voter choice by enabling a diverse pool of candidates to run competitive campaigns — even if they have little access to wealthy, powerful benefactors.

Congress, the states, and municipalities around the country should adopt small donor matching programs without delay. They are the surest way to guarantee that voters, not dollars, are the heart of our democracy.