PHOENIX — A new initiative being launched Wednesday seeks to limit the access of candidates to private cash and encourage them to instead run for office with public financing.
The proposal being advanced by the Arizona Advocacy Network, if approved by voters, would sharply cut the amount of money any individual or political action committee could give to anyone running for office. But it also would provide more public dollars for those who agree not to take private funds.
It also would:
• Allow people to register to vote right up to election day;
• Require that any ballot mailed by 7 p.m. on election day be counted as valid;
• Provide dollar-for-dollar individual tax credits for donations to the Citizens Clean Elections Commission to help fund candidates running with public dollars;
• Triple the minimum $50 income tax that corporations with at least 50 employees have to pay, with the additional dollars earmarked to fund the Clean Elections Act.
But the provisions that could make the most difference seek to financially encourage candidates to run with public funds and avoid seeking out dollars from private individuals and political action committees. Joel Edman, the network’s executive director, told Capitol Media Services he believes that’s a worthwhile goal.
“The system we have has left us in a place where the vast majority of Arizonans feel like their politics are dominated by a small set of wealthy corporate interests and their lobbyists,” he said. Edman said that both strengthening public financing and opening up the voting process “will bring everyday people more into the process.”
Backers need 237,645 valid signatures on petitions by July 2 to put the issue on the 2020 ballot.
The measure is likely to draw stiff opposition from business interests, notably the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It not only fought the 1998 voter-approved law creating the Citizens Clean Elections Commission but also filed multiple lawsuits to have it declared illegal.
Chamber spokesman Garrick Taylor said he hasn’t seen the language of the initiative. But he said his organization opposes any measure to either increase funds for candidates running with public dollars or decrease the amount individuals and PACS can give others.
On the former point, Taylor noted that the Clean Elections system is financed largely by a 10-percent surcharge on all civil, criminal and traffic fines.
“There are better ways to spend public resources than on yard signs and robocalls,” he said.
As to trimming maximum donations — individuals and PACs who now can contribute up to $6,000 to candidates would be limited to $2,500 for those seeking statewide office and $1,000 for legislative and local races — Taylor said that infringes on the rights of donors.
“We take the view that money and using money in the advocacy for the election or the defeat of a candidate is akin to speech,” he said. “We would continue to resist efforts to erode entities’ political speech.”
That 1998 voter-approved law allows — but does not require — candidates for statewide and legislative office to get public dollars if they refuse to take outside cash.
The number of candidates participating in the past few elections has declined.
At least some of that is due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying it is illegal to give publicly funded candidates more money simply because their private foes have spent more. At the same time, many privately financed contenders have increased their spending, both directly and with the help of outside supporters, putting publicly financed candidates at a disadvantage.
In 2014, for example, Gov. Doug Ducey won his first campaign with $2.2 million donated directly to him plus another $7 million in commercial financed by outsiders, notably the Republican Governors Association. Yet a publicly funded candidate for governor currently gets only $638,222 for a primary; survivors get another $957,333 for the general election.
The initiative would boost that aid to nearly $1.8 million for the primary and almost $2.7 million for the general election.
And there’s something new.
Under the initiative, each registered voter would get a certificate good for up to $150, which could be given to publicly financed candidates — and only those who take public funds — who could accumulate sufficient chits to qualify up to 200 percent more than the regular allocation.
So that $2.7 million for a general election for a gubernatorial contender could become more than $8 million.
Edman defended allowing the certificates to be used only to help those running with public dollars.
“We think candidates, in deciding whether they want to have access to this pool of money, will have to decide whether they want to accept the restrictions that come with running ‘clean,’ ” he said, meaning eschewing private dollars. He said the public interest is served with candidates who are not dependent on raising money from private sources, saying they will “spend more time talking to everyday voters rather than large corporations and their lobbyists.”
The initiative also seeks to make changes, major and minor, in the voting process.
Potentially the most significant would spell out that any ballot postmarked by the close of polling places would count. Now, anything that doesn’t make it to county offices by 7 p.m. on Election Day is disregarded.
“Why would we set up a system where somebody could put their ballot in the mail three or four days before the election thinking that’s plenty of time to get there when there are parts of the state where the mail is not that quick?” he asked.
Edman conceded it could mean delays in calling certain races, even longer than the week it took last year to declare that Democrat Katie Hobbs won the race for secretary of state. He said the right to vote outweighs “the convenience for political junkies” to know who won as quickly as possible.
And counties would be able to operate early voting centers right up through the Monday before the election.
On the registration side, the measure would allow people to sign up right through Election Day — and even at the polls — versus the current requirement to have registered at least 29 days ahead of time. And the system that now allows Arizonans to register when they get or renew a driver’s license or state-issued ID card would become automatic unless people opt out.
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