Ballot Initiative Would Limit Big Campaign Donors, Transform Elections in Arizona

A sign outside of the polling place at First Southern Baptist Church in Mesa.
A sign outside of the polling place at First Southern Baptist Church in Mesa. Benjamin Leatherman
A group of voting advocates went public on Wednesday, October 30, with a ballot initiative that would make sweeping changes to Arizona's electoral system.

The effort is already drawing hints of opposition from business groups and at least one Republican lawmaker.

The initiative, called the Fair Elections Act, is full of ideas that are frankly a trudge to talk about (try reading the 30-page text in one sitting without dozing off), yet raise profound questions about democracy in Arizona. How easy should we make it to vote? Who gets to influence our elections?

The Fair Elections Act, supported by the nonprofit Arizona Advocacy Network, can be divided roughly into two sections.

One section would make it easier for Arizonans to register to vote and cast their ballots. Provisions in this section would allow voters to register as late as Election Day, automatically register people to vote when they apply for a driver's license, and allow more time for early voting. The initiative follows the lead of other states that have passed voter-rights laws in recent years. For example, 16 states have enacted automatic voter registration, while 17 allow same-day registration.

It's unclear how much passing the act could affect voter turnout in future elections, according to Joel Edman, a spokesperson for the political committee supporting the initiative. It's also unclear who will be funding what is sure to be an expensive campaign to gather 238,000 signatures by July for the initiative to qualify for the 2020 general election ballot. Edman acknowledged that supporters are "going to need to raise a lot of money to be successful," but declined to comment on who their financiers may be.

In addition to opening up access to the ballot, the Fair Elections Act also has a section that seeks to weaken the influence of big-money donors and corporation-funded committees in political campaigns.

Lobbyists would be prohibited from "gifting" trips to elected officials, as well as meals worth more than $20.

Individuals, as well as political action committees (PACs), which often act as influence-funnels for corporations and interest groups, would be restricted to spending only up to $1,000 on local and legislative races, and $2,500 on statewide offices. Currently, the limit for both individuals and PACs is $6,250.

Under a new voucher program, voters would get four certificates worth $25 each to spend on candidates in the 2022 election cycle. The voucher program is similar to a model enacted by Seattle for local elections, which nearly doubled the number of city residents who contributed to political campaigns.

To pay for the voucher program, the act would raise the minimum required corporate income tax from $50 to $100. The system would be administered by the existing Clean Elections program, which grants candidates the opportunity to publicly finance their campaigns if they reach a threshold of individual donors and swear off taking any additional campaign contributions.

Edman, also the executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, told Phoenix New Times that the one-two punch of spending limits and the voucher program is intended to give people with less purchasing power more influence in elections.

"If a candidate who is able to raise all of their campaign money from a fairly small group of wealthy people or wealthy corporate interest group, they are likely to pay more attention to that small set of people than to all their constituents," he said. "We want a democracy where candidates care more about what their voters want, not their donors.”

Edman stressed that the proposed spending limits are more than double what the legal limits were six years ago. Before former Governor Jan Brewer signed a law lifting restrictions on political contributions in 2013, individuals could spend only up to $488 on candidates.

Issues of voting and campaign finance often fall along partisan lines, with Democrats supporting measures to make it easier to vote and limit campaign spending. Republicans generally support efforts to make voting harder.

Business and libertarian groups, meanwhile, tend be in favor of fewer restrictions on campaign spending, which they call a form of political speech. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry opposed the Clean Elections system when it passed in 1998.

Chamber spokesperson Garrick Taylor said the organization has not taken an official position on the Fair Elections Act, but noted that the organization is generally opposed to public campaign financing.

"There are better ways to expend public resources than political campaigns," he said.

Taylor did not rule out the possibility that the chamber could commit resources to a counter-campaign against the measure. Another group that has opposed public campaign financing, the Koch-backed Arizona Free Enterprise Club, did not respond to request for comment. But the organization criticized the initiative in a tweet, calling two of its provisions "dumb ideas."

Republican State Representative T.J. Shope was blunt in his assessment of the initiative, calling it a "30 page heap of flaming poo." 
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh