Arizona's Campaign Finance Reform

Arizona's campaign finance reform project has succeeded in three election cycles, but questions linger. Is the Grand Canyon State a model for the new age of electioneering, or will big money find another end-around the process?

With a local political climate largely dominated by the Republican Party, the state of Arizona may appear to be an unlikely beacon of campaign finance restraint.

Yet the state's 1998 Clean Elections Act made it only the second state in the country after Maine to enact such reforms. Arizona's individualism has led to "a very long tradition of citizen initiatives" explains Eric Ehst, executive director of the Citizens Clean Elections Commission. He adds that, at the time of passage, "Arizona had been rocked by a number of political scandals" and was ready to spearhead reform.

Clean money is a voluntary system by which candidates must raise a small amount of seed money and agree to spending limits, and then receive public financing. The voluntary nature of clean elections follows from the 1975 Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo, which, while allowing limits on individual contributions, held that spending money to influence elections is a constitutionally-protected form of free speech.

The system has survived a number of court challenges to operate successfully through three elections cycles, beginning in 2000. And elections appear increasingly open, with more publicly-financed candidates each election, including current governor Janet Napolitano. Overall, claims Ehst, "the number of candidates has gone up, voter participation has gone up; incumbent retention rates are down."

Still, some critics believe that Arizona's clean finance laws put too much power in the hands of an unelected oversight commission. According to Representative Kirk Adams, a small business owner, "the Arizona system has become so convoluted and so inconsistent that it has become dysfunctional."

Adams believes that his insistence on running traditional campaigns puts him at a disadvantage. Since those who use clean financing have an advantage, "we call it a voluntary system, but it's a de facto compulsory system." Adams argues that subsidies from the state should not be part of the political process. "I don't believe that people should be forced to subsidize a candidate they disagree with," he says.

Ehst, however, says that clean elections "do not rely on taxpayer money." Beyond $5 donations by clean election supporters, the system "uses a surcharge on civil and criminal funds." Responds Adams, "that's public money that could be used for other public goods."

Adams also believes that accepting private money puts a check on negative campaigning. As a traditional candidate, he says, "I receive money from people that know and trust me. They don't want to be embarrassed by me. For a clean elections candidate, receiving money from the government, there's nobody to check what you say or do."

Kyrsten Sinema is one Arizona representative who has very different perceptions. Sinema, a beneficiary of clean finance, won her first election in 2004 and was re-elected under the system in 2006. She believes that being a clean candidate frees her from outside influence, explaining that "I do what is right for my district, regardless of money and special interests." After the initial seed money, she explains that, as a clean money candidate, "you don't raise any money, none at all."

By contrast with Sinema, Adams began fundraising a year and a half before his last campaign. However, he explains, "the fundraising really is campaigning. You're selling yourself and your ideas."