Match Breaker

‘Clean Elections’ overturned

In 1998, Arizona adopted a “Clean Elections” law that gave publicly financed candidates matching funds so they could keep up with the spending of their privately financed opponents. Past an initial threshold, every additional dollar spent by a privately funded candidate (or by independent groups supporting him) was matched by a government dollar that went to each of his publicly funded opponents.

State officials claimed the law would prevent corruption and promote a flowering of political speech. Critics said it violated the First Amendment. In a 5-to-4 decision handed down on June 27, the last day of its 2010–11 term, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the critics.

“This scheme substantially burdens protected political speech without serving a compelling state interest and therefore violates the First Amendment,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. Arizona had claimed the matching funds resulted in more political speech, not less, and therefore should pass constitutional muster. Roberts responded that the First Amendment permits no favoritism by the government: “Any increase in speech resulting from the Arizona law is of one kind and one kind only—that of publicly financed candidates.” 

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