By Bradley A. Smith
Should the government choose sides in elections? That is the core question at stake today when the Supreme Court hears oral argument in McComish v. Bennett, challenging Arizona’s tax financing system for political candidates.
Historically, the government’s role in elections was limited to managing the process of voting in a neutral, nonpartisan way. From an early date virtually every state and the federal government enacted laws prohibiting the use of state resources for campaigning.
In the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo, however, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of government directly funding candidate campaigns, so long as candidates remained free not to participate. Under these programs, candidates received a lump sum from the government in exchange for limiting their own fundraising and spending.
In recent years, Arizona and a handful of other jurisdictions have gone far beyond what was approved in Buckley by offering candidates “rescue” funds. In this scheme, if a tax-subsidized candidate is outspent by an unsubsidized candidate, the government gives additional money to the participating candidate—usually enough to match the amounts raised by the non-participating candidate. And if a group of citizens, such as MoveOn.org or the Club for Growth, spends money to criticize a participating candidate, the government gives still more “rescue” money to that candidate.