March 28, 2011- Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a pair of cases that have campaign finance reformers on edge. McComish v. Bennett and Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC concerns the “triggered matching funds” provision of Arizona’s public financing system. By all accounts, the system is both successful and popular with the state’s voters.
So what is at stake? Simply put, it is the ability of ordinary citizens to run competitive races against better-financed opponents. Under Arizona’s now 13 year-old system, those candidates who decide to opt-in agree to limit total spending and accept only small contributions. In exchange, the state contributes public funding.
The central issue before the Court is the trigger mechanism that provides those candidates who have opted into the system with additional funding if their opponents exceed established spending limits. This allows those candidates who agree to forsake large contributions for small ones to go toe-to-toe with self-financing millionaires and well-financed candidates supported by powerful interests. Without this protection, few serious candidates would opt into the system.
Under Arizona’s system, candidates can focus on voters, not dialing for dollars.
Audaciously, plaintiffs have argued the trigger mechanism discourages free speech even though Arizona does not prevent privately financed candidates from raising or spending as much money as they like, nor limit the amount anyone else can spend in support or opposition to a candidate.
Just last year, the Supreme Court claimed to be protecting the right of corporations to free speech in Citizens United. To be consistent, the Court should not limit the free speech rights of publicly financed candidates by limiting their access to money.