The U.S. Supreme Court erred when it struck down the matching-funds provisions of Arizona's public campaign finance laws.
The Arizona Clean Elections program does have its problems, but they do not rest with how candidates receive public funds if they are running against traditionally funded opponents.
The majority argument, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, twists the money-as-speech tenet in a way that puts the rights of self- or privately financed candidates and independent funding groups ahead of the rights of candidates who don't have personal fortunes or wealthy supporters.
Systems like Arizona Clean Elections allow candidates who aren't rich or connected to keep up, to a degree, with privately funded opponents. Under Roberts' interpretation, individuals and groups with deeper pocketbooks can buy more First Amendment rights than those of lesser means.
Candidates who run "clean" qualify by collecting $5 donations from 220 people and agree not to spend their own money or to raise other campaign funding.
Roberts argued that the Arizona system's most serious flaw is that it parcels out a set dollar amount per race, but then gives candidates who are running "clean" more money if their traditionally funded opponents (i.e., those doing old-fashioned fundraising and getting campaign donations) spend money.
The "clean" candidate is given money every time his opponent, who has had to raise his campaign funding, makes a campaign expenditure, up to three times the original amount.
This matching-funds provision is where the court majority found the Arizona law violates the rights of the privately funded candidates and independent expenditure groups. The court did not strike outright publicly funded campaign systems.
The Arizona system in essence rewards "clean" candidates with money they did not have to work to collect. It also places limits on the traditional candidates, because every time they raise money for their own campaign's benefit, their opponent, or opponents, receives the same amount.
This forces traditional candidates into a position where they are, in a way, campaigning against themselves, Roberts argued.
What's more, "clean" candidates receive matching funds pegged to the spending of independent expenditure groups, which by law cannot be affiliated with or coordinate with candidates or their campaigns.
Say an outside group runs a newspaper advertisement criticizing candidate Joe Blow, who is running "clean." His opponent, Jose Soplar, is a traditional candidate. Soplar is not affiliated with the outside group, but Blow receives campaign money to match the expenditure from the group - and can use it as he sees fit in his race against Soplar.
We disagree with Roberts. Arizona's Clean Elections system does not limit the free-speech rights of independent expenditure groups and privately or self-financed candidates. The system does not allocate money based on party or the content of the speech; it is based purely on funding levels.
It creates more opportunity, not less, for free speech in the campaigns as more people are able to run for office.
In gutting the matching-funds provision, the court majority placed more value on the free-speech rights of wealthy candidates or those who can attract large campaign donations.
If free speech is measured in dollar bills, as the Supreme Court holds, the well-to-do will always have more rights than the rest of us.
A system such as Clean Elections, built to protect the free speech and civic participation of those of lesser economic means, is therefore a necessity.
Our reservations about Arizona's Clean Elections system are not rooted in the matching-funds provision. Rather, we find flaw with the lack of oversight in how candidates spend the public money and how easy it is for candidates to get on the ballot.
Candidates using public money have used it to buy computers (which they keep after the election is over) and to take their staffs to late-night dinners, among other questionable uses.
It is also far too easy to qualify for the public funding. The requirement to gather 220 donations of $5 is too low and ends up enabling candidates who do not have to demonstrate any real level of support before receiving the thousands of dollars in public money.
The $5 donation level is appropriate, but the number should be increased.
Arizona voters will see - and should reject - a ballot measure in 2012 that would constitutionally ban public funding of any kind in future elections.
Arizona Clean Elections is not perfect, but the Supreme Court undercut one of its finest features. Public financing of campaigns has an important role to play in Arizona, and it should continue.
Arizona Daily Star