NY Times editorial: “Arizona’s Boon to Free Speech”

Public funding in Arizona state elections comes before the Supreme Court on Monday. In a March 25 editorial, the Times reports that the Court

will hear argument about an Arizona law that levels the playing field in state elections, by a public financing mechanism called triggered matching funds.

As the Times describes it, the law

provides a set amount of money in initial public support for a campaign to candidates who opt into its financing system, depending on the type of election. If such a candidate faces a rival who has opted out, the state will match what the opponent raises in private donations, up to triple the initial amount. The amount raised in private donations triggers the matching funds.

The Times makes a point of distinguishing between this law and the “millionaires’ amendment” to the McCain-Feingold federal election law, which the Supreme Court struck down three years ago. The amendment would have leveled the field by raising campaign contribution limits for candidates outspent by self-financed opponents. The Court, defying logic to preserve the advantage of wealthy candidates, called the amendment “an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises” free-speech rights.

The difference stressed by the Times is that whereas the millionaires’ amendment would have increased private funding and therefore the risk and the appearance of corruption, the Arizona law to be argued on Monday increases public funding, by which the risk and the appearance of corruption is reduced. The Times concludes,

To the extent [the Justices] focus on the mechanism’s First Amendment implications, they should reach the heartening conclusion that more public financing means more political speech in a calibrated way that combats corruption.

It’s somewhat discouraging to see how many of the on-line comments on the Times editorial resemble one by “PC” of Dallas:

Why should taxpayers pay to provide campaign funds for someone? Yes, it is so easy to paint the wealthy as “evil” but if someone has made money, he/she can spend it any way they want? … I am all in favor of free speech. I am not in favor of the government using taxpayer money to “level the playing field.” This is a slippery slope and is contrary to the fundamental principles of individual rights (not government dictates) that this country was founded on.

On the other hand, Elisabeth of Arizona shares some serious thinking:

I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but one of the reasons we have so many tea party affiliated wackos in the Arizona Legislature is BECAUSE of Clean Elections and the fact that anybody, whether sensible or qualified, can run and win. Since these un-business-like forces have been unleashed we’ve had a series of embarrassing anti-immigration and over-the-top pro-gun laws. And don’t get me started on the birther bill that is being planned.

Recently, 60 Arizona CEOs wrote a letter to the Arizona Senate begging the Republican senators to join with the Democrats to vote down five extremely racist and near-fascist anti-immigration laws because of the damage that passage would do to our state’s already damaged image and business. Maybe it might not be such a bad idea to have business more closely involved with vetting and financing candidates after all.

You don’t necessarily want candidates 100 percent beholden to big business and special interests — perhaps contribution limitations and full disclosure would help — but nor do you want representatives who are beholden to no one but their own strident ideology.

To that last point I would reply that representatives elected on public funding are beholden to the voters who elected them. If those voters profess a “strident ideology,” it’s up to Elisabeth and her fellow non-wackos to outnumber them at the polls.

About Hamilton Richards

I retired in 2006 as a Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. These days I volunteer technical support for Citizens' Climate Lobby (Austin chapter), Common Ground for Texans, (CG4Tx.org), Integrity Texas (IntegrityTexas.org), and several friends.
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