A popular ordinance in Tempe, Arizona, aimed at keeping so-called “dark money” out of the city’s elections, was repealed last week by Republican state lawmakers in order to diffuse its noble effects.
The ordinance was passed by the citizenry themselves, placed on the spring election ballot last month and approved by 91 percent of the residents.
“The 91 percent vote in Tempe was amazing. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin doesn’t get that kind of a vote,” said Terry Goddard, former attorney general for the state and a current advocate for a more open elections process. “What it shows beyond any question is that this [type of law] is very popular.”
Despite its popularity, however, Republican lawmakers in Phoenix passed their own bill last week, stripping local governments of the power to ensure their elections are transparent. The bill was signed into law by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey last Thursday.
The ordinance in Tempe required any political spending by third-party organizations that exceeded $1,000 to be reported, and to additionally disclose the original source of the donations to the organization itself. Candidates and political parties already have to make such disclosures according to state law, but non-profit advocacy groups aren’t required to do so.
Such political expenditures have made it unclear who is spending money on political advertising, and for what purpose they may be spending it. Organizations like “Americans for Prosperity,” which sounds patriotic and noble, serves as a front group for wealthy billionaires like the Koch Brothers, for example. Other groups are less known than AFP, and new organizations pop up every year without requiring disclosure on who they are or who is funding them.
This type of spending has skyrocketed since the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that third-party advocacy groups (even when acting on behalf of corporations) can spend an unlimited amount of political dollars in our nation’s elections. The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, opened up the floodgates, allowing these groups to become vehicles for individuals and corporations to donate to with anonymity.
The people of Tempe wanted to put a stop to that kind of dark money. Their ordinance, passed with support from more than nine out of every 10 voters last month, would have prevented outside groups from influencing their elections in a non-transparent way. Instead, state Republican lawmakers decided their concerns and the remedy for stopping dark money went too far.
Arizona voters statewide could undo this power grab by lawmakers and end dark money altogether in The Grand Canyon State. An initiative ballot movement, spearheaded by an organization run by Goddard himself, could get on the ballot for this fall’s elections. It needs close to 226,000 signatures before July from citizens within the state to do so.
Given that the movement to end dark money within the state is very popular, collecting those signatures shouldn’t be a problem. And once on the ballot, voters statewide will likely approve the initiative.
As well they should — every political contribution deserves to be transparent, not just those being spent by politicians or their respective parties. Third-party groups do have a right to speak up, but they should not be given special accommodations that make it more difficult for the citizenry to know who is funding them.
Beyond Arizona, more citizens in the United States that still don’t have disclosure requirements need to demand their lawmakers support and enact such measures. And those lawmakers who stand in the way of doing so deserve to be replaced with others who back the citizenry’s right to know who’s trying to buy their elections.