Arizona, Massachusetts voters consider public-financed campaigns

Tuesday, November 3, 1998

Stifled for more than two decades in their efforts to revamp the way Americans finance political campaigns, organizations devoted to such reform say they've developed a sure-fire battering ram to crash through the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo: voluntary, public-financed campaigns.

Groups such as Common Cause, Public Campaign and Northeast Action say that if state officials start providing generous helpings of public money to candidates willing to limit their campaign expenditures, clean elections will follow.

“We want to take the money chase out of the system,” said Karen Carpenter of Northeast Action, a group that helped Maine and Vermont adopt public-financed campaigns. “Candidates are so wound up in getting contributions and building up their war chests that policy issues get short shrift and don't get discussed in any meaningful way.”

But opponents say taxpayer money shouldn't be used to fund the campaigns of political candidates, particular those on the fringes. They also say such reforms raise constitutional concerns because the limits, although voluntary, restrict political speech

Debate aside, voters in Arizona and Massachusetts appear ready today to approve new laws that would create such campaign systems. Polls in both states show growing support for the measures.

The Arizona law would require candidates to raise “seed money” in increments of $100 or less to demonstrate the viability of their campaigns. Gubernatorial candidates, for example, would have to garner 4,000 contributions to qualify.

If the candidates agreed to limit spending, they could use money from the state's matching-funds program. Arizona plans to fill the fund through a voluntary income tax checkoff, an increase in lobbyists' fees and a surcharge on criminal and civil fines.

The Massachusetts proposal is similar to Arizona's but would require the state Legislature to fund the program.

But some say public-funded campaigns are unconstitutional because the guiding Supreme Court decision in Buckley effectively precludes significant campaign finance reform by equating money with free speech.

GOP leadership in the Senate derailed a measure offered this year by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis. The McCain-Feingold bill, which would have banned unregulated donations to political parties, fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to halt debate and move toward a final vote.

While efforts were stymied at the federal level, officials in about two dozen states are continuing their own efforts to reform the way Americans finance state and local campaigns.

“If we are ever to win the sweeping reforms needed for federal reform, we have to mobilize and build an army outside of Washington,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of Public Campaign, a national nonpartisan group that works with lawmakers on campaign finance issues.

While many lawmakers attempt mandatory spending limits and outright bans on soft money donations, some say the public-financed systems developed for Maine and Vermont are the models for reform.

Maine's Clean Election Act, in particular, has received considerable attention. Passed by Maine voters in 1996, the law directs the state's ethics commission to draft new election rules.

Beginning in 1999, the commission will lower limits on contributions from corporations or political action committees from $5,000 to $500 for a gubernatorial candidate and $250 for a state Senate or House candidate. Individual contributions will be lowered from $1,000 per election to $500 and $250 respectively.

The law also created a publicly funded campaign program, using money from a voluntary taxpayer checkoff, increased lobbyists' fees and election fines.

The law already faces challenges from the National Right to Life PAC, which says contribution limits on PACs are unconstitutional, and from the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which says the lobbyist fees restrict free speech.

University of Virginia law professor Lillian BeVier says that even the voluntary limits pose problems because they effectively limit the total amount of political speech.

BeVier cites a 1995 decision by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Shrink Missouri Government PAC v. Maupin that says the court is “hard-pressed to discern how the interests of good government could possibly be served by campaign expenditure laws that necessarily have the effect of limiting the quantity of political speech in which candidates for public office are allowed to engage.”

David Donnelly of Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections said the measure will actually increase political speech. He says as many as two-thirds of the races in Massachusetts are uncontested. With public-financed campaigns, qualified people turned off by the high cost of campaigning will join the race, he contends.

Donnelly says the measure will also allow all candidates their chance to speak.

But opponents say the creation of a level playing field doesn't seem constitutional. They say the laws force taxpayers to give money to candidates they would never support.

The Buckley court wrote: “The concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements in our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.”

But that same decision left room for public-financed campaigns, provided that they are voluntary, says Kaia Lenhart, political director for Arizonans for Clean Elections.

“The key word is 'voluntary',” Lenhart said. “No candidate is forced to participate. If you want to continue operating under the state's current limits, you can do that.”