Thomas Jefferson attacked the idea of forcing Americans to contribute to political causes they disagreed with. He called it "sinful and tyrannical." Most Americans still believe it violates a basic sense of fairness.
But Arizona's system of publicly financed campaigns for state races has invented a new wrinkle of government meddling in elections. Last week, the state's Clean Elections Commission voted to remove Representative David Burnell Smith from office for allegedly violating state campaign finance laws. According to the Commission, Mr. Smith exceeded spending limits during his recent primary campaign, so now it's seeking Mr. Smith's removal from office despite the fact that the Arizona Constitution doesn't give it that authority.
Mr. Smith's case is an important precedent since several other newly elected legislators are also being accused of running afoul of the state's complex campaign finance laws. "The system has created a dangerous Soviet-style bureaucracy where five unelected members of the Clean Elections Commission become the judge, jury, and executioner of what constitutes righteous campaign activity," says Mark Brnovich of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute. "Even mere allegations of financial wrongdoing can have significant impact on political campaigns during the final frantic days before an election."
Free-speech advocates aren't the only ones casting a jaundiced eye on Arizona's law. A 2003 government study of the state's campaign finance system found that its goal of increasing voter participation hadn't been met. Despite an ostensible goal of "cleaning up" elections, public financing schemes like Arizona's are really designed to make political campaigns a wholly owned subsidiary of the state -- and thereby influence their outcome. But citizens have the right to put their money where their mouth is in politics -- and also a right to keep their money in their pockets, a right effectively denied them by laws mandating public financing of election campaigns. Arizona's system is going even farther, denying the public the right to be represented by the candidate of its choice.
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal Political Journal on March 30, 2005.