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"Clean" Elections? I Don't Think So!
By Shon Flake March 22, 2004

In Arizona, where I live, a bill called Clean Elections was passed by initiative in 2000. It barely passed, but it made it into law. Now, any "candidate" who can garner enough $5 contributions can make it onto a primary elections ballot, and run for public office with support from the state's general fund.

During the 2002 elections, some enterprising men in the Phoenix metro area decided to take advantage of this to run a decidedly unorthodox campaign. They qualified for the ballot, then took their public money and "campaigned" exclusively in local bars, clubs, and discotheques. The money went to pay for the bills that they and their cronies ran up while they partied - uh, "campaigned." When the tabs were totaled, they each spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000.

How did they get so much money? Well, not everyone in the race was running as a "Clean Elections" candidate. We in Arizona didn't make it illegal for a candidate to use regular donations, or even your own money in a campaign. However, we did require traditionally funded candidates to itemize their spending. All of their publicly funded competitors then got checks of a somewhat equivalent amount (based upon a formula that is, I think, about as understandable as a tax code), so that the campaign would be "fair."

To Arizona's credit, the state is taking action against the above "candidates" who ran in bars, and is working to recover the money they spent. However, this sure looks like a case of trying to close the barn door after the horses are already out.

Remember, this was in the primary, where there are often several candidates for each slot in the general election - each of whom, if running on the taxpayer's dime, could be costing us money. All of the "Clean Elections" candidates who survived to reach the general election then got additional public funding when their traditionally funded opponents started spending for the final run. Some of those traditional candidates, most notably the Republican nominee for governor, got in trouble with the Clean Elections board when they misunderstood some of the instructions on the forms and made some mistakes, thus "denying" equivalent funding to their competitors.

I have some deep feelings about campaign finance reform. I have no plans to enter politics myself, so this isn't personal in that manner. However, I am affronted by the campaign finance reforms that are currently in place. It's as if those who put them there have no faith in me, or in any other voter.

McCain-Feingold, Clean Elections, and all of the other election funding "reforms" set up complicated formulae and intricate rules of behavior regarding how money may be raised and spent, and where, when and how advertising may be done. Copious amounts of time and money are spent investigating real and alleged violations. Worst of all, tax money is allocated to partisan candidates, forcing ordinary taxpayers to subsidize philosophies with which they disagree.

As voters, it is our responsibility to elect officials to run the government. We have the task of sorting through the rhetoric and sales pitches, and choosing the people best suited to do their jobs. It is insulting to me that the government has to decide which candidates can advertise to us, or how much they can spend to do it. Let us decide for ourselves!

"But," the politicians will say, "it's not fair for one candidate to spend more than another!" Hogwash! (I live in a county that grows a lot of pigs, so I know firsthand what hogwash looks and smells like, and this label is not given lightly.) If a candidate has ideas that attract attention and funding, more power to him or her. For the Clean Elections Commission to tell me that I can only contribute a set amount to a cause I support is unconscionable, and wrong. On the other hand, if a person can't raise money, the perhaps that person is campaigning on an issue that people don't support. In that case, let the issue die!

"But," they say again, "then candidates will 'buy' elections! What if the Mafia, or 'big business,' or wealthy individuals spend gazillions to promote their unworthy causes?"

This is a concern. I don't want to live under a government peopled with corrupt officials. However, this is where the reformers' lack of faith in the voters becomes apparent. They don't believe that we can see through the smoke and mirrors! They honestly believe that the people will vote for any old issue, as long as it is sold to them with enough polish and pizzazz. Since we can't be trusted to decide for ourselves, fund-raising and advertisement must be strictly regulated lest we be sold a bill of goods by a slick-talking snake-oil salesman.

You know what? If we do buy into a blowhard's sales pitch and elect him, WE DESERVE IT! We are the ones who should choose our own government, and we deserve precisely the government we choose. If we elect someone who doesn't do the job, then his opponents should point this out to us during the next election. There are enough rules and regulations already in place to help keep a poor or corrupt official from wrecking things irreparably during a single term, and even if he were to find a way around them, opposing political forces should hinder his efforts until his term ends. If he's bad enough, he can even be politically impeached, or criminally charged. ("An impeachment? Trial? Horrible! That would divide people, cause problems, and cost a lot of money!" Yes, that's true, but remember, we elected that person! We deserve it!)

The only campaign finance law that I believe is necessary is for all candidates to agree to full and complete disclosure of their funding sources as a condition of running for office. Steve Forbes and Ross Perot want to spend billions of their own money to run for President? Fine. Home Depot and Wal-Mart want to fund city council candidates that support big box stores? Cool! The mob wants a front man in the mayor's office? Okay.

What? The mob? How can that be okay?

Because, if everyone knows where the money's coming from, no one will vote for da bum!!! If the community doesn't want big box stores, Home Depot and Wal-Mart's money will be wasted on a losing campaign. Remember, in all likelihood, these people will not be running unopposed. (If they were, no one would need to fund them!) Their opponents will point out the problems. And, in the event that the funding sources are hidden, it will be the responsibility of the Fourth Estate to ferret out the true sources of the money. I'm sure the financial disclosure sheets will be required reading in every news office across the country. I don't know of any reporter who wouldn't love to break a story about a candidate whose funding comes from unsavory interests.

All of the campaign funding reforms I've seen so far miss the point. The founding documents of the United States place the source of governmental authority in the hands of the people. We're not here to be coddled, protected, or babied. We know that there are liars and thieves among us. Trust us enough to let us see things for ourselves, make our own choices, and live with the consequences.

Copyright © 2004 by Shon Flake


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