If you’ve read the news lately about the state of our politics, you’ve been inundated with stories of the corrupting forces of political speech and the so-called “threat” it poses to our democracy. You’ve heard less, however, about why efforts that claim to be designed to increase transparency in political debates are actually designed to limit free speech and chill the expression of particular opinions.
Politics is a rough sport, but there are rules. If corrupt organizations try to cut corners, they should be identified and dealt with to the full extent of the law.
But the vast majority of organizations that participate in the political process operate in bounds and comply with the spirit and letter of the law. Where there is ambiguity, groups err on the side of caution.
What types of organizations are we talking about? Chambers of commerce, industry trade groups, and organizations formed to improve the community. Take for example the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, formed in 1903, before Arizona was even a state, or the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, formed in 1888. These organizations are intimately invested in the issues facing our community. They’re the groups the public should want to exercise their right to political speech, as they represent tens of thousands of Arizonans.
This is “dark money”? On the contrary, these groups seek to shed light on the issues and provide a voice for the Arizonans that make up their membership. Yet they have become collateral damage – if not the primary targets – of countless grenades that have been lobbed in what is becoming a war on the First Amendment.
The attacks on speech have come in the form of ballot initiatives, opinion columnists’ screeds and – despite being invalidated by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council – a series of unclear, overreaching rules promulgated by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission (CCEC), all designed not to amplify free speech, but silence it.
Aside from the broader philosophical argument that our freedoms of speech and association are under siege, the work of the crowd that wants to crack down on private giving and speech is poised to inject so much uncertainty into political communication that it will either make it prohibitively expensive to participate in the elections process, or so confusing and intimidating that organizations and contributors will determine it’s just not worth the hassle.
With so many rules and governmental bodies competing for jurisdiction, it’s difficult to know which set of rules organizations and donors are even expected to follow. The secretary of state is the state’s chief elections officer. Period. Yet the CCEC’s expansive view of its role is leading to contradictions and confusion about authority, preemption, and dual enforcement. Want to exercise your voice? Want to give to a politically-engaged civic group? You shouldn’t need a lawyer.
We can clear up the confusion this legislative session, however. Senate Bill 1516, sponsored by Sen. Adam Driggs in close collaboration with Secretary of State Michele Reagan, would give Arizona’s campaign finance rules a long-overdue spring cleaning and provide the predictability and clarity that citizens look for when seeking to lawfully participate in elections in our state.
This commonsense legislation streamlines current law, reducing it from 18,475 words to 9,500, and from 32 statutes to 24. It organizes Article 1 into a number of smaller articles, arranged like an easy-to-use table of contents, includes 20 new definitions to provide clarity and consistency, creates bright-line rules for independent expenditures and uniformity among required disclaimers, and updates filing rules to require quarterly electronic filing. The result of a year’s work and countless stakeholder meetings, this legislation would work wonders for participants in Arizona elections.
The legislation specifically targets illegitimate fly-by-night political groups masquerading as non-profits, providing the secretary of state with a specific mechanism to identify those bad actors and subject them to the registration, reporting and disclosure requirements of political committees.
The bill appropriately distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate actors and applies the law accordingly. Furthermore, to the extent that fully compliant non-profit organizations do engage in politics – making independent expenditures, for instance – they report to the secretary of state and CCEC as required by law. If an organization making election-related expenditures is not in compliance with the IRS or Arizona Corporation Commission, it would trigger a rebuttable presumption in the new law that the organization is a political committee. In other words, non-compliant “non-profits” are subject to enforcement penalties just like any other political committee if their actions otherwise qualify them as one.
An uncertain environment deters action. When it comes to the laws we all live under, a diverse marketplace of ideas is critical. Any set of circumstances that limits speech and causes a shortage of competing viewpoints is antithetical to the American ideal.
Certainty and predictability would provide citizens and organizations alike – on both sides of a debate – a better opportunity to participate in the electoral process. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, we can agree that all Arizonans deserve to have their voices heard. Our laws should only help to make that possible.
Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.