One Result of Proposition 15 May Surprise Voters

In June, Californians will vote on Proposition 15, a measure placed on the ballot by the Legislature that would create a test program for public financing of campaigns in the state.  If adopted, the program would apply only to campaigns for the office of Secretary of State, but its proponents hope to expand its scope in the future.  A similar law enacted in Arizona provides a glimpse of some of Proposition 15’s possible consequences—at least one of which may surprise the measure’s proponents.

Proposition 15 would require a candidate for Secretary of State wishing to receive public funding to obtain 7,500 signatures and 7,500 “qualifying contributions” of $5 apiece to prove that he or she has a wide base of public support. The candidate must also agree not to accept any contributions other than limited amounts from the candidate’s political party.  Major party candidates can then receive $1 million in public funds for the primary campaign, and primary winners can receive $1.3 million for the general election campaign.  The program is funded through fees imposed on lobbyists and lobbyist employers.  More information on the details of Proposition 15 is available here.

In 1998, Arizona voters narrowly adopted Proposition 200,  the “Clean Elections” initiative. The Arizona measure applies to more offices than California’s Proposition 15, but operates in a similar way.  It allows candidates for state office to receive public financing for their campaigns if they collect a specified number of contributions of $5.  If a candidate’s opponent elects not to use the public finance system and out-fundraises that publicly-financed candidate, then the publicly-financed candidate is given additional money by the program to ensure that the two have an essentially equal amount to spend. The idea behind the law is to even the playing field between incumbents and challengers and lessen the importance of outside financial interests and lobbyists.

Arizona’s Clean Elections law funds many candidates who otherwise would have lacked financial support.  However, the law has had an unintended consequence—it has contributed to the polarization of the Arizona legislature. Clean Elections removed the moderating influence that large donors (often business leaders) held over both political parties. As a result, more extreme ideological candidates found themselves financially competitive with business-backed candidates, and the more extreme candidates proved more able to motivate and turn out their supporters. Over the last decade, Arizona’s traditionally strong group of moderate Republican legislators was systematically defeated in primary elections. Today the Arizona legislature is one of the most politically polarized in the country.

The story of the “Clean Elections” law and its effects in Arizona is one that California voters and legislators should pay attention to as they consider campaign finance reform options here.  

Thanks to Ruth Marcus at Washington Post for the tip.

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