New York – Today’s narrow 5-4 decision in McComish v. Bennett continues the Roberts Court’s retreat on fairness in elections, striking down trigger provisions that allowed publicly financed candidates in Arizona to receive additional funds for their campaigns when their spending was outstripped by their privately financed opponents.
Brenda Wright, Director of Demos’ Democracy Program, commented, “The Court’s ruling distorts the First Amendment into a caricature that would be unrecognizable to its creators. The very purpose of the First Amendment is to encourage public debate and dialogue in the political sphere. The Roberts Court has turned this tradition on its head by ruling that the First Amendment should shield privately financed candidates against any response by their opponents. ”
Although the majority decision in today’s ruling struck down Arizona’s trigger provisions for additional funding of publicly financed candidates, the decision left intact the basic constitutional foundation for public financing of elections. Clean Election systems, such as Maine’s, that previously used such trigger provisions, can be readily adapted to comply with today’s ruling.
It is now up to state legislators to update their state’s public financing system to pass constitutional muster. Matching funds that are triggered by small donations rather than by spending of an opponent – such as New York City’s long-standing program – remain a constitutionally viable means of providing public financing. Lawmakers must now make sure each state’s system remains a viable option for candidates who want to run for office free of the influence of special interest donors.
As Wright noted, “Today’s decision, while unfortunate, does not mean that we must give up on efforts to overcome special-interest control of our elections. Our democracy is too important to allow that to happen. As the Supreme Court continues its hostility to common sense legislation aimed at raising the voice of everyday people, elected officials must act to ensure our elections are truly of, by, and for the people and not bought and paid for by special interests.”
Demos, a national, non-partisan research and advocacy organization, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in McComish v. Bennett on behalf of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and several legislative candidates, urging the Supreme Court to reject the constitutional challenge to Arizona’s law providing full public financing for state elections.