There is a saying that you should be careful what you wish for, you might get it. Arizonans in the 1990s wished for election reform. They got it and it’s been a colossal failure.
Last week the United States Supreme Court heard arguments about the constitutionality of one of those reforms, the Arizona Clean Elections law that provides public funds to state political candidates.
The court has been asked to decide if so-called matching funds given to publicly funded candidates – which are triggered by increases in campaign spending by privately funded candidates or political committees – restricts the speech of privately funded candidates.
It’s hard to read the court’s tea leaves based on the questions justices asked of the litigants, but the conventional wisdom is that the four conservative justices agree that it does chill free speech, the four liberals agree that it doesn’t and, as usual, Justice Anthony Kennedy the moderate in the middle will decide.
It’s time for clean elections to go along with the other reforms passed by voters a decade ago.
Besides supposed clean elections, voters also imposed term limits on state office holders, tried to open primary elections to all voters and created an independent redistricting commission.
Terms limits has been made a farce through legislators switching houses after their four terms, or eight years, are up. Fourteen legislators have been in the legislature for more than eight years, 11 of them now in the Senate.
The state courts gutted open primaries, which were intended to empower the growing class of centrist voters who are registered independents by allowing them to vote for whomever they wanted in primaries. The political parties sued and now the primaries are only half open, meaning independents can vote but they have to pick a side first. As a result, few independents vote in primaries leaving primary elections in the hands of the most liberal or the most conservative of voters, who are the ones most likely to vote in a primary.
The redistricting commission was supposed to create politically balanced legislative and congressional districts but failed miserably from the start due to forces out of its control, among them the federal government’s enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights, and the state’s rampant growth.
Because Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic in Arizona, and because they tend to vote Democratic, it’s almost impossible to draw competitive legislative districts since any effort to chop up Hispanic populations to balance districts is rejected by the federal government or the courts. Moreover, most of Arizona’s growth has been in the suburbs and is so robust it makes moot within a couple of years any attempts to have politically balanced districts.
In 2003, when the first commission-drawn districts went into effect, most legislative districts had about 85,000 registered voters, with the largest having 100,000. Now, there are five districts with more than 150,000, the largest having 168,000. Meanwhile, many of the urban and rural districts still have only 60,000 or so registered voters because of low or no growth there.
But the greatest failure has been Clean Elections. Before Clean Elections, cranky crackpots on the extreme edges of the two dominant political parties had little chance of raising enough money to win an election. Now they’re lavished with tens of thousands of public dollars to pander to the most extreme voters in primary elections.
As a result, Arizona’s Legislature is chock-a-block with extremely liberal Democrats and extremely conservative Republicans, and thanks to the failure of redistricting, extremely conservative Republicans hold a 2-to-1 edge in both houses.
The best thing the Supreme Court can do for Arizona is kill Clean Elections. Then it’s up to the rest of us to figure out how to unreform the rest of the reforms and return some semblance of sanity to our state’s elections.