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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Arizona’s Clean Elections experiment merits continuation

    Ryan Johnson  columnist
    Ryan Johnson

    In most states in the U.S., aspiring politicians who want to run for office quickly run into one barrier – money. If they don’t have it already, the reality is that they have to raise it, and raise it quickly.

    Fundraising typically entails looking for big donations from wealthy individuals and special interest groups. Established politicians may have those connections, but newcomers usually don’t – and that prevents many bright minds who would appeal to voters from ever throwing themselves into political races.

    But candidates in Arizona have an alternative. In 1998, Arizona voters passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. The act provides public financing for political campaigns if candidates are able to get $5 contributions from enough voters.

    So candidates for governor, for example, have two choices – one, go to private donors and try to raise money, or two, cross the state getting $5 from 4,500 different people, then get a check from the Clean Elections Commission.

    Which candidate would you trust most to not compromise the political process?

    Nonetheless, this month the Clean Elections system is under fire at the state capitol. Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, has proposed “”strike-everything”” legislation that, if it goes into effect, will effectively gut Clean Elections.

    Pearce and certain other lawmakers are very intent on making Clean Elections ineffective. They’re creating a distraction by saying that they will divert the money to a fund for domestic violence victims, but what they would really do is eliminate one of this country’s great political experiments. Clean Elections is giving Arizona and the rest of the country a peek into what an alternative way of funding state elections looks like. Regardless of how it turns out, we’ll be able to glean from it valuable information about the political process.

    And in the short term we’re giving candidates who wouldn’t be able to raise big donations the chance to run in Arizona.

    Certainly there are flaws in the Clean Elections system. Opponents claim that it unnecessarily advantages incumbents. To an extent this is true. For instance, so-called “”seed money”” – limited, initial private funding – is not counted toward Clean Elections spending calculations. So if a candidate is running as a Clean Elections candidate and has a $100,000 budget and his opponent spends $110,000, he gets an extra $10,000, even if he already received $10,000 in seed money.

    It makes sense that seed money should count toward spending calculations. However, this technicality could easily be fixed. A flaw in execution does not necessarily mean the idea is flawed.

    Also, there’s something to be said for people being able to use their money to speak their minds in politics. After all, most political money goes to advertising, which is a form of speech, and one can make an argument that not letting people donate is akin to censoring their speech.

    Under Clean Elections, a donation to a traditional candidate often triggers a matching disbursement to the Clean Elections candidate, which inhibits donations.

    But that doesn’t mean Clean Elections isn’t fair. When both candidates end up spending the same amount of money, they get the same amount of advertising.

    Another complaint with Clean Elections is with the Clean Elections Institute itself. Clean Elections supporters may be exaggerating its positive impact. Barbara Lubin, executive director of the Clean Elections Institute, said that Pearce’s legislation would “”turn Arizona into the political scandal capital of the United States.”” Not quite.

    Perhaps one of the reasons some dislike Clean Elections so much is that the Institute acts like its own lobbying group, seemingly campaigning for candidates that it funds. Shouldn’t it play a more low-key role? But again, that’s something that could be fixed – it’s not a reason to eliminate the concept.

    In the end, the benefits of Clean Elections outweigh the costs. It removes the biggest barrier to entry for aspiring politicians. So many individuals who couldn’t realistically raise the big-time money to run for office now have that opportunity.

    You can’t put a price on good governance – so let’s hope that the amendments to the Arizona Clean Elections system don’t become reality.

    Ryan Johnson is an economics and international studies senior. He can be reached at

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