Even when the money's clean, election can still get mighty dirty

By Robert Franciosi

My Turn

Nov. 11, 2002

As the Beatles song says, money can't buy you love.

As Arizona's recent election has shown, money also can't buy substantive campaigns, freedom from attack ads, the elimination of special-interest influence, or political victory for non-mainstream candidates.

Those were the promises made by the backers of the Clean Elections Act when they successfully wooed voters four years ago. But handing out $12 million of taxpayer money to political candidates has only bought us politics as usual, except more of it.

Arizona has the most comprehensive public-financing law in the nation, and our election received national attention from those hoping to learn about the effects of public financing of campaigns. What are the lessons?

Lesson 1: Clean money does not buy clean campaigns.

We should have learned this after the first go-round with public funding in the 2000 election. The antics of some candidates two years ago were so bad that the Clean Elections Commission considered requiring candidates to take an oath swearing not to conduct a campaign that makes "malicious or unfounded accusations creating or exploiting doubts as to the morality, patriotism or motivation of any party or candidate."

The dirtiness of the recent election has already led to new calls for using public funding to control what candidates say. Such measures are an affront to free speech, and will have a chilling effect on campaigns. After all, one candidate's malicious distortion is another candidate's informative ad. Whatever standard is put in place will be subject to abuse by political partisans. During the recent election, candidates snared their opponents in red tape by accusing them of violating the law's financial provisions. It will be far worse if candidates can accuse each other of making false or malicious statements.

Lesson 2: There's more than one way to influence an election.

Despite the availability of public funding, special interests exerted considerable influence. First, they served as bagmen for the $5 contributions needed to qualify for public funding. Labor unions were the most conspicuous players this time around, but in future elections we can expect environmentalists, the Religious Right, or even political parties to act as power brokers by offering rosters of $5 donors to would-be candidates.

Another way special interests continued to influence elections was through independent expenditures. As we saw, candidates can run "clean" and let their allies spend big money on attack ads.

The fact that third-party money is not matched makes a mockery of the "level playing field" rationale of the Clean Elections law. The bad news is, campaign finance advocates will seek to fix this loophole by imposing further restrictions on free speech. One member of the Clean Elections Commission has already thought out loud about banning third-party expenditures.

Lesson 3: Money alone does not a viable candidate make.

The central myth behind Clean Elections is that special-interest money is the only thing holding back independent candidates. But the reality is that fringe candidates remain fringe candidates because a majority of voters do not agree with their views.

Richard Mahoney was a plain-talking, highly educated, man-with-a-plan - the type of candidate Clean Elections seems to have been made for, yet he gained no traction. Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent in the primary and general elections, yet we ended up with the same politicians who would have won with private funding.

Arizona's multimillion-dollar experiment in making campaigns cleaner has failed. Apologists for Clean Elections have suggested that the system can be reformed by controlling what candidates say and what third parties spend. Instead, we should stop blaming money for the state of politics and repeal the Clean Elections law.

Robert Franciosi is director of Urban Growth and Economic Development Studies for the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank.

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