Democracy for Sale

Phoenix Magazine – January 2018

Mike O’Neil

Arizona Senator John McCain, frustrated at the role of big money in politics, co-authored the 2002 McCain Feingold campaign reform act which regulated the financing of political campaigns.

In 2010 the Supreme Court decision struck down key provisions of the McCain Feingold campaign reform act and opened the door to unlimited campaign spending by third parties including corporations and unions. McCain Feingold had previously forbid third-party communications in the 60 days before a general election that mentioned the name of a candidate.

In that ruling the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that such limitations on campaign funding pose an unacceptable restriction on free speech. Conservative Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, suggested that the remedy for unlimited corporate campaign contributions is transparency and full disclosure of campaign contributions.

Since that ruling, however, exactly the opposite of transparency has happened. Corporate and other interest groups have been able to funnel unlimited money into campaigns.  And, by setting up a maze of shell groups to conceal original monetary sources, they have been able to remain anonymous in doing so.

The names of such intermediate groups provide no clue as to their funding sources. The names range from the innocent (think “Citizens United”) to the completely misleading (Who would have thought that a group called “60 Plus” would be a lobby for CUTTING Social Security benefits?)

And examples of this abuse cut close to home. In Arizona, for example, the suspicion abounds that APS has engineered a functional takeover of the Arizona Corporation Commission, the body that regulates their ability to raise utility rates, by helping to elect a majority of its commissioners. It would be difficult to imagine a more direct conflict of interest.

The amounts are not chump change: since 2008, the Center for Responsive Politics has estimated that $690 million dollars has been funneled into our political system to ensure the election of favorable candidates and the passage favorable citizen initiatives as well as the defeat of ones’ hostile to their interests.

The Transparency Solution

Former Arizona Attorney General and onetime Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard has stepped into the fray with a proposed Arizona solution, a constitutional amendment “Stop Political Dirty Money”.   The initiative would require that any entity donating $10,000 or more to influence the result an election must disclose such contributions. Significantly, organizations would have to report the ORIGINAL SOURCES of such funds. No more hiding behind non-descriptive or even misleading front groups.

Will such disclosure prove enough to clean up our political system?  That’s not clear. Candidates or causes can still benefit from potentially unlimited contributions; nothing in Goddard’s proposal will stop that. And it will not apply to Federal offices since the Arizona Constitution may not regulate those. But it is hard to see a meaningful downside to disclosing such substantial contributions. At least for those not making them.

And the barrier Goddard and his allies face is substantial. They need approximately 250,000 signatures to achieve ballot status. They have been buoyed by the recent success of the Save Our Schools coalition which got a referendum on the ballot with virtually exclusive use of citizen volunteers.   Their success using only volunteers was unprecedented — and was thought unattainable—until they succeeded. On the other hand, SOS needed about half the number of signatures that a constitutional amendment requires to achieve ballot status.  But Goddard’s group has longer to collect the signatures – and can do their work outside of Arizona’s torrid summer season. And Terry Goddard has long been a master of the initiative process. He got his feet wet in Phoenix politics 35 years ago when he successfully spearheaded an initiative to get Phoenix City Council members elected from districts rather than at large, a measure that was opposed by almost the entire Phoenix political establishment.  He got the change on the ballot—and won. A year later he was mayor.  The barrier for a constitutional amendment is high, but such petition drives are Goddard’s home turf.


Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.