A Public Thumb on the Election Scales

When taxpayers underwrite the campaign expenses of candidates for public office, serious questions arise: Not least, why should taxpayers subsidize candidates or ideas they oppose? But when taxpayers subsidize only one side in a campaign, there should be outrage. Perhaps there was at the Supreme Court this morning, when the Court blocked an appalling opinion out of, not surprisingly, the oft-overturned Ninth Circuit.

In McComish v. Bennett the Goldwater Institute is challenging Arizona’s Clean Elections Act, under which “candidates who run with public campaign subsidies receive an almost dollar-for-dollar match each time a privately funded opponent raises money above a certain amount,” the Goldwater press release states, “and additional matches when independent expenditures are made against the subsidized candidate.”

The problem for proponents of this Act is that the Supreme Court has said more than once that “leveling the playing field” is a forbidden rationale for campaign finance regulations. Moreover, and more precisely, in 2008, in Davis v. FEC, the Court held that the so-called Millionaires Amendment to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act of 2002 was unconstitutional. Under that amendment the contribution caps that would otherwise apply to congressional candidates were lifted if a candidate was running against a self-financed opponent – a “millionaire” who, under the First Amendment, could not be restricted in funding his own campaign. Again, leveling the playing field won’t do. (Note also that that amendment put a lie to the main rationale for campaign finance restrictions – to prohibit corruption or its appearance. The caps are needed to prevent the candidate from being corrupted, so the argument runs – unless he’s running against a millionaire, in which case he won’t be corrupted by the added contributions. Such are the lengths to which campaign finance regulators are prepared to go to justify their schemes.)

Writing for the majority in Davis, Justice Alito went to the heart of the matter: “It is a dangerous business for Congress to use the election laws to influence the voters’ choices.” That it is, and it’s not through election laws alone that Congress – or states, as here – tries to influence voters choices through the use of taxpayer dollars. Do we need any better example, on this primary election day around the country, than publicly-funded National Public Radio?

In January, U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver found Arizona’s Act unconstitutional under the First Amendment. But the state appealed, and last month a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion stating that the damage to free speech was minimal. This morning the Supreme Court issued an order to enforce the District Court’s injunction against the use of matching funds. As reported by the Goldwater Institute, the order says the injunction will remain in effect until the Court rules on the underlying appeal of the Ninth Circuit decision. The injunction also would be lifted if the Supreme Court decides not to consider the formal appeal. This is one to watch.