Recently the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law claiming to support “clean elections,” ruling 5-4 to uphold our free speech rights and finding the law unconstitutional.
The Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act of 1998 established a system of campaign finance that dispenses taxpayer dollars to candidates who accept certain campaign restrictions, most notably spending limits. However, the legislation also provided for additional “matching funds” to a publicly-financed candidate if his privately-funded opponent’s expenditures exceed his initial allotment of public dollars. Spending by independent groups made in support of the privately-financed candidate, or in opposition to the publicly-financed candidate, also counts toward the threshold that triggers matching funds.
This matching fund provision essentially ensured that for every dollar a privately-funded candidate spent on his campaign or that an independent group expended, a dollar of taxpayer money was given to his publicly-financed opponent. The publicly-financed opponent automatically benefited regardless of his own effort or popularity in the campaign.
The Arizona law would have continued to cripple and burden political speech in the state. It punished individuals and groups who chose to use their own property – in this case their money – to support candidates of their choosing by triggering taxpayer dollar contributions to help the opposing candidate.
Not surprisingly, the same people who criticized the Citizens United case, which allows corporations to exercise their right to freely donate to elections, have also voiced concern about the Arizona case decision. These Leftist groups only like elections where they can control which candidates receive what contributions, contrary to the free speech rights of citizens to voice their opinions through political contributions. Of course, progressives are quick to defend free speech when it conveniently fits into their liberal agenda. Even desecration of our flag is ok, but when it comes to truly fair elections and their financing, freedom of speech is quickly thrown under the bus. They have no qualms about diluting freedom of speech through your political contributions.
Proponents of publicly-financed campaigns will tell you that it “levels the playing field” because not all candidates are able to raise the same level of funding. Yet this notion quickly disregards the fact that though man is equal under the law and in opportunity, man is not equal in abilities and skills. It is, in fact, a form of property redistribution on the political field.
The more the privately-funded candidate effectively solicits campaign contributions, the more taxpayers are on the hook for supporting that candidate’s opponent. Indeed, under this system of matching funds, contributing money to a candidate triggers more taxpayer money into the hands of his opponent. Furthermore, the privately-funded candidate himself is forced, as a taxpayer, to support his opponent despite his resolve not to burden taxpayers with his decision to run for elected office.
A publicly-financed campaign system leads to limited free speech, unfairly favored candidates, and the continuation of a nest of powerful special interest groups while draining public funding from other important state programs.
Free speech is limited because the voices and wishes of individuals and independent groups, through their decision to contribute to a privately-financed candidate, are diluted by the state matching their financial contributions with taxpayer-backed funding to the public candidate.
Publicly-financed candidates are unfairly favored for the same reason. They receive contributions, not because people support them through their First Amendment right to contribute to their campaign, or because of their popularity among voters, but because their privately-funded opponent is successful at rallying contributions and gaining popularity. Publicly-financed candidates, in essence, receive a windfall off the backs of their more popular privately-funded opponents and taxpayers.
Finally, special interest groups prevail in a publicly-financed campaign system. In order for a candidate to receive public funding, they must first gather a number of smaller, private donations which allow special interest groups like unions and other advocacy groups to come in and support their hand-picked candidate. In return, these groups can finance campaign ads supporting their candidate through a mixture of special interest funding and taxpayer money – a bargain deal for these groups!
Why then, should such a system be allowed to continue?
After all, individuals have just as much right to spend their money in a way they choose as they do to raise their voice in a political debate. There is nothing partisan about that. These monetary contributions should be viewed as a form of free speech for individuals and independent groups on both sides to utilize.
Sadly, North Carolina has its own publicly-financed system of matching funds. With the recent Supreme Court decision, the General Assembly will need to re-evaluate its campaign financing laws and repeal the unconstitutional matching-fund provision.
Currently, N.C. Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals candidates, in addition to Council of State races (insurance commissioner, state auditor and superintendent of public instruction) are allowed to participate in the North Carolina program. Several of these candidates choose not to “burden themselves” by looking for sources to fund their own campaigns and instead, burden taxpayers for public funding. Judicial candidates receive funding through a $3 check-off on NC income tax forms plus a $50 annual mandatory fee assessed to attorneys. The three Council of State races receive money primarily through direct appropriations from the state General Fund (i.e. taxpayer dollars).
Ending the matching funds provision would bring North Carolina one step closer to dismantling our taxpayer-forced public financing campaign program. Doing so would ensure true freedom of speech remains a critical component of North Carolina’s campaign finance system.