Arizona, Massachusetts voters take stab at campaign finance reform

Wednesday, November 4, 1998

Voters in Arizona and Massachusetts — two states almost diametrically opposed in their politics — gave their approval yesterday to campaign finance reform measures that create publicly funded systems which reward state and local candidates who agree to strict spending limits.


“The two states are very different politically: Massachusetts is very industrial and liberal; Arizona is conservative,” said Eric Schmeltzer of Public Campaign, a nonprofit group supporting changes in the way Americans fund political campaigns. “But both states agree that sweeping campaign finance reform is needed, and people are resolute in their desire to see these reforms acted out.”


Yesterday’s votes make the two states the third and fourth to adopt systems that use state funds to finance the campaigns of candidates who agree to limit their election spending. In 1996, voters in Maine approved the state’s Clean Election Act, while lawmakers in Vermont passed a similar measure last year.


Opponents to the measures say such reform violates the First Amendment by restricting candidate spending and limiting the amount of total speech during an election.


Supporters say the limits are voluntary ones. They claim, too, that the prospect of clean elections encourages more candidates to run for office, thereby creating more speech.


Schmeltzer told freedomforum.org that the passage of the two state laws “prove that when voters have a chance to act on campaign finance reform they will each and every time.”


In Massachusetts, two of every three voters endorsed Ballot Question 2, the measure that creates the system. Beginning with the 2002 election, candidates for state office who agree to spending limits and $100 contribution limits would be eligible for public money.


The new law also limits the use of soft money — unregulated donations to political parties — and requires candidates to file election reports electronically.


“We’re elated,” said David Donnelly of Massachusetts Voters for Cleans Elections, “The 2-to-1 victory exceeded expectations. This will clearly send a message to lawmakers on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill that voters want real campaign finance reform.”


Donnelly told freedomforum.org that voters now have to make sure the state Legislature provides the money for the system as required by law. Supporters estimate the program will cost about $14 million each year.


In Arizona, voters narrowly approved a publicly funded campaign program with a bare 51% voting in favor of Proposition 200.


The law creates a five-member commission to oversee the public fund. To qualify, candidates must collect $5 contributions from voters in their district. The minimum number of contributions ranges from 200 for legislative races to 4,000 for governor.


Supporters say the program will be funded by proceeds from new lobbyist registration fees, surcharges on civil and criminal court fines and voluntary donations from Arizona tax returns.


“We’re thrilled that Arizona is taking a lead on campaign finance reform,” Kaia Lenhart, political director of Arizonans for Clean Elections, told freedomforum.org. “In passing this clean-election model, we are not only sending a message to the Arizona Legislature but also nationally.”


But Jon Hintz, spokesman for the group Not With The People’s Money — No on Proposition 200, said using state funds is not the way to fix the problem.


“I don’t want my money to go fund a member of the Nazi Party who could get on the ballot and you’d never know it,” Hintz said. “The collection of money in campaigns is a qualifier. If you’re a nut case, people aren’t going to donate to you.”


Opponents in Arizona and Massachusetts promise to raise legal challenges to the new laws. Maine’s Clean Election Act, the model for both proposals, already faces challenges. The National Right to Life Political Action Committee filed suit last year saying contribution limits on PACs are unconstitutional, while the Maine American Civil Liberties Union says lobbyist fees restrict free speech.


“We know we have our work cut out for us and that our opposition will file legal challenges and fight us in the Legislature,” Lenhart said. “But we came into this with a broad coalition and we intend to reach out.”


— The Associated Press contributed to this report.