The US Supreme Court’s conservative majority continued its project of bartering off American democracy to the highest bidder with a decision Monday that will make it dramatically harder to counter free-spending attack campaigns funded by billionaire donors and corporate spin machines.
With a 5-4 vote, the Court has struck down a matching-funds mechanism in Arizona’s Clean Elections Law that allowed candidates who accepted public funding to match the spending of privately funded candidates and independent groups that might attack them. Under the Arizona law—which has long been considered a national model for using public funds to pay for campaigns—candidates who accept public funding are limited in what they can spend.
Candidates who refuse public funding are not so constrained; and nor are independent groups that support privately funded candidates; indeed, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s sweeping Citizens United v. FEC ruling of 2010, which cleared the way for corporations to spend as much as they like to influence election, restrictions to the flow of private money into politics have been all but eliminated.
Faced with the threat of being overwhelmed by private money, no candidate would go the “Clean Elections” route, unless some mechanism was put in place to counter attack ads by privately funded opponents and groups associated with those opponents. The Arizona Clean Elections law provided that mechanism under a formula requiring that for every dollar a privately funded candidate (or group supporting that candidate) spent above established spending limits, a dollar in additional public funding would go to the “Clean Elections” candidate.
The genius of the Arizona law was two-fold. The guarantee of matching funds assured that candidates who accepted “Clean Elections” money would be able to compete on a level playing field and, in so doing, this discouraged privately funded candidates and independent groups backing them from trying to buy elections with overwhelming spending.
On Monday, however, the Supreme Court struck down the “matching funds” provision of Arizona’s “Clean Elections” Act, declaring it to be an unconstitutional restriction on the free-speech rights of privately funded candidates and corporate-funded “independent” groups to shout down publicly funded candidates.
In combination with the Citizens United ruling, Monday’s ruling in the case of McComish v. Bennett creates a circumstance where corporations and their political allies will enjoy virtually unlimited political advantages over candidates who choose to run campaigns thaty rely on small individual donations or public financing.
The court has removed one of the few remaining tools for maintaining a level playing field in politics, on which candidates of differing views might have won or lost elections based on their skills and ideas —as opposed to their relative financial advantages.
In so doing, the Court has tipped the balance even further toward wealthy and corporation-allied candidates in a move that says the only speech right now protected in our politics is the right of those with the deepest pockets to shout down everyone else.