Arizonans deserve to know who wants to buy their votes.
But they don’t.
Under current laws, they can’t.
Political non-profits can spend on TV spots, radio ads, robocalls, mailers other schemes to try to sway voters without disclosing the source of the money.
This anonymous cash – so-called dirty money – is corrosive to a system that is based on informed voters making educated choices.
Yet secret spending is becoming more ingrained in our elections.
Dark money played big role in 2014 election
In 2014 – the last year Arizona elected a governor and slate of statewide officeholders – groups outside of the political campaigns spent $27.3 million ($12 million of it on the governor’s race).
At least 46 percent of that was dark-money spending by groups that don’t have to disclose their donors, according to reporting by The Republic.
People instinctively understand why this is wrong.
In March, a staggering 91 percent of voters in Tempe approved a measure to require political non-profits to disclose campaign spending in local races.
Politicians instinctively understand the potential benefit to them from anonymous spending.
Legislature, governor act to stop local efforts
This month, the Legislature passed and Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that prohibits cities from enforcing campaign rules just like the ones Tempe voters overwhelmingly approved.
The argument against disclosure is based on the idea that organizations with a broad donor base should be able to protect the privacy rights of members.
It’s a weak argument because individuals who donate more than $50 are already required to identify themselves.
Pooling money into a group that can keep campaign donors secret invites corruption.
Voters deserve to know who is spending to get a candidate elected. Why? Because in the real world, money comes with strings attached.
Informed public outweighs privacy argument
A candidate’s donor list is a more likely predictor of post-election behavior than a candidate’s stump speech.
That’s why voters need to see a complete list of donors.
It is why the importance of an informed electorate outweighs any arguments in favor of maintaining a cloak of invisibility for non-profit groups that are currently exempt from disclosure rules.
Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard says dark money should be called "dirty money” because “it is polluting the system."
He is pushing an initiative called Outlaw Dirty Money, which would amend the state Constitution to give the people of Arizona the right to know who is trying to sway state elections.
Amending the state Constitution is a major step. It should not be done lightly.
Establish basic right for voters to know
But in this case, it would be done to establish a basic right for people to know who is giving money to influence elections. That is a necessary change that responds to a well-known problem.
The amendment doesn’t limit contributions. It doesn’t tell anyone not to use their money to exert political influence.
It simply requires transparency.
Instead of hiding behind innocuous-sounding titles like Citizens for Beautiful Sunrises, this amendment would require the names of donors.
According to the group’s website, the amendment "requires public disclosure of all contributors who give $2,500 or more to influence elections in a two-year election cycle, regardless of whether their contributions passed through any intermediaries."
Disclosure needs a statewide voter mandate
The value of transparency was clear to more than 90 percent of Tempe voters. The reaction of lawmakers and Ducey in retroactively preempting the will of those voters shows why this kind of disclosure won’t happen unless voters mandate it statewide.
But voters won’t get a chance to vote on the Outlaw Dirty Money initiative unless its supporters collect enough signatures by July to qualify for the ballot, and Goddard says they need more volunteers to help gather the target of 300,000 signatures.
“This single reform will allow voters to take control of our elections back from the faceless dirty money forces,” he said. “But, it won’t get on the November ballot unless a lot more good people stand up and do their part.”
Those who think transparency in campaign financing is a good idea should check out outlawdirtymoney.com
Anonymity and secrecy in elections are antithetical to our form of government. Why? Because you can’t make an informed choice unless you have information.
Dispatches from the Urban Resistance, from Tempe to Nashville and beyond.
Nine of 10 Tempe voters called for lifting the curtain on secretive money in city elections, but lawmakers this week passed a bill that would stop that. The measure now goes to the governor, who was a beneficiary of 'dark money' spending in his 2014 run for office.
"Dark money" refers to political non-profits that spend money on political ads, robocalls and other efforts to sway elections without any requirement to disclose donors. The Tempe measure would force the organizations to unveil financial backers if spending exceeds $1,000 in municipal elections. Phoenix is beginning to explore a similar measure.
But House Bill 2153 would prohibit cities from enforcing such campaign-finance reforms.
Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, the bill's sponsor, said the landslide passage of the Tempe measure on March 13 didn't deter him.
"Lots of people in my district want the right to remain anonymous and that's who I'm here to represent," Leach said.
Leach and others say anonymity protects donors who fear retaliation for criticizing a politician.
Supporters of disclosure say voters should know who is spending to influence their vote.
"The legislation will stymie efforts to shine a light on untraceable campaign spending by wealthy individuals, corporations and interest groups occurring in elections at all levels of government," Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego said.
Some say the issue is likely to land in the courts.
What the bill does
The bill passed by the Senate on 16-13 vote that followed party lines with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
The bill does four things:
- Non-profits in "good standing" with the IRS would not have to register as a political-action committee or PAC.
- Non-profits would not have to disclose donor information.
- Non-profits in good standing would not have to respond to audits, subpoenas or produce evidence regarding a "potential political campaign finance violation."
- Remove the requirement that a non-profit prove they are organized for the sole purpose of influencing an election.
Laurie Roberts: Nine out of 10 Tempe voters said no to dark money. But will Arizona's leaders listen?
An astounding 91 percent of Tempe voters on Tuesday approved a charter amendment that would require disclosure of dark money in city elections.
They don’t like the dark money that increasing is buying Arizona’s elections – the secret interests that state leaders have bent over backwards to protect.
Are you listening, Gov. Doug Ducey?
Did you hear them, Arizona Legislature?
Meanwhile, Phoenix is working on a similar proposal.
And a bipartisan group called Outlaw Dirty Money is gathering signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot.
Lawmakers Wednesday approved a bill to nullify a clean-energy ballot measure that's barely gotten off the ground in Arizona by making the penalty for utilities violating such a rule as little as $100.
Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City introduced the "striker" amendment supported by fellow Republicans. Such amendments are a tactic used to introduce a new issue late in the session, often skipping part of the public-hearing process. It passed a committee vote 4-3 on party lines.
Critics contend the amended House Bill 2005 undermines not only the current Renewable Energy Standard, where state utility regulators at the Corporation Commission require utilities to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025, but also a ballot initiative recently filed in Arizona aiming for 50 percent renewables.