In Arizona, election reform's surprising consequences

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, May 5, 2010


"What's the matter with Arizona?" is the obvious question about the state's new immigration law. There are a few obvious answers -- and a not-so-obvious one that I was surprised to hear from observers across the political spectrum here.

Obviously, the state is reacting -- overreacting -- in understandable frustration to the federal government's failure to control illegal immigration. Overall illegal immigration is down, but stepped-up enforcement in California and Texas has helped shift the problem to Arizona.

Obviously, the state is reacting to an economic crisis that has made the additional pressures of illegal immigration all the more untenable. In the percentage of jobs lost, Arizona has suffered more than Michigan, and its budget woes have exceeded those of California.

Obviously, the Republican Party, which controls both houses of the Arizona legislature and the governorship, is becoming more conservative nationwide. In the Grand Canyon state, the Tea Partyers met the Minutemen.

But Arizona is not as blazingly red as it once was. Arizonans voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and twice elected Janet Napolitano governor. Five of its eight U.S. House members are Democrats. Its Hispanic population is 30 percent and growing -- suggesting that a wise politician of either party would do well not to alienate this key constituency.

Which leads to the less obvious reason that many people here posed as an explanation, at least in part, for the immigration bill: the state's 1998 "Clean Elections" law. The measure, adopted in response to a corruption scandal, is one of the most far-reaching public financing laws in the nation.

Candidates for the legislature can receive public funding if they collect 220 contributions of at least $5 each. This entitles them to more than $14,000 for the primary campaign and more than $21,000 for the general election. If a competing candidate chooses not to comply with spending and contribution limits, the publicly funded candidate gets matching funds to stay even.

One admirable notion underlying the law was to make campaigns more competitive, leveling the playing field between entrenched incumbents beholden to moneyed interests and upstart challengers otherwise unable to amass the necessary resources.

Trouble is, it worked -- perhaps too well. The barriers to entry were extremely low. People with little experience in politics at any level ran for the legislature and won. Previously, for better or worse, candidates of both parties were "vetted" by business groups that then proceeded to help them raise money, a process that served to filter out extremes on both sides.

And, as it turned out, a law pushed by "good government" types, primarily Democrats, ended up benefiting conservative Republicans who quickly figured out that the Clean Elections money could be used to take on Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans.

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