The Supreme Court's Distorted View of Arizona's Clean Elections Matching Funds

The Supreme Court is currently considering a challenge to the Arizona’s Clean Elections matching funds provision. Unfortunately, it appears the case may be decided without even considering the most important aspects of Clean Elections legislation.
April 13, 2011 - PRLog -- The Supreme Court is currently considering a challenge to the Arizona’s Clean Elections matching funds provision. The court appears to be split on the issue of whether the matching funds are unconstitutional, with Roberts and the other conservative justices leaning for the plaintiff, the less conservative justices supporting Arizona, and Justice Kennedy holding the deciding vote. Unfortunately, it appears that the case may be decided without even considering the most important aspects of Clean Elections legislation.

Arizona’s Clean Elections law has been in effect for 13 years and 7 election cycles (since 1998), during which hundreds of candidates have “run clean” and many have won legislative and state-wide office, including two governors. Clean Elections has been credited with reducing the influence of special interest wealth over government; with diversifying the race, language and economic class of elected officers; and with increasing the participation and the influence of non-wealthy citizens in the political process.

The Clean Elections law is now under attack by those special interests who feel that political power due to their wealth has been blunted by the law. The case McComish v. Bennett now being heard by the Supreme Court concerns whether the Arizona Clean Elections matching funds provision violates (1) a wealthy candidate’s first amendment right to spend his money, and (2) the fourteenth amendment by regulating campaign financing to equalize resources among competing candidates and interest groups, rather than advancing a compelling state interest in the least restrictive manner. (Source:

First, a few facts about how Arizona’s Clean Elections law works. A Clean Elections candidate agrees to forgo all private financing, then collects qualifying donations of $5 each from registered voters in the district. The required number of contributions ranges from 200 to 4000 depending on the office being sought. Qualified candidates are given a lump sum that is sufficient to run a competitive campaign. If a nonparticipating (privately financed) opponent outspends the “clean” candidate past a certain threshold, additional “matching” funds are provided, up to three times the initial lump sum value. If the privately financed candidate continues to spend even more money, no further funds are provided. The system is designed only to provide enough funds to be competitive, not to match the wealthy opposition dollar for dollar.  Clean Elections has worked well, even against very wealthy privately financed opponents, and therein lies the source of the complaint that brings it into the Supreme Court.

The plaintiff’s lawyer argues that the law impinges on his wealthy client’s 1st amendment rights because, by spending his money, he triggers the state to grant a benefit to his “clean” opponent. Justice Kennedy also voiced a concern that the law might “limit speech” by discouraging wealthy candidates from spending, for fear of the matching funds.

However, there are other stakeholders whose first amendment rights must also be considered. These are the majority of Arizona citizens who voted for the Clean Elections referendum, and who, year after year, poll hugely in favor of the law. These citizens’ rights to free speech and political participation were essentially nonexistent in the pre-Clean Elections era, when private money alone dictated political outcomes. Their rights will be weakened if the law that they voted for is whittled away by the Supreme Court. To do so because special interest wealth feels constrained (though not prevented) from asserting its rights to spend a lot of money on elections is just wrong.

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The Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform is a non-partisan coalition of groups and individuals recognizing the need for electoral reforms to enrich and expand democracy in our state and its localities. In addition to advocacy, we seek to provide education on electoral reform and the policy solutions necessary to realize it. We are working towards a vibrant democracy with accessibility for the average person, a competitive political environment, and pluralism in policy and decision making. For more information please visit or e-mail
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Tags:Arizona, Clean Elections, Supreme Court, Campaign Finance, Democracy, Roberts, Kennedy, Mccomish V Bennett, Reform
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Page Updated Last on: Jun 29, 2011
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