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Dark money foes launch new effort for disclosure law

By: - March 26, 2019 3:16 pm

Photo by ccPixs.com

Former Attorney General Terry Goddard is hoping the third time’s a charm for efforts to prohibit the use of anonymous “dark money” in political campaigns.

Goddard on Tuesday launched the campaign for the Voters’ Right to Know Act. The proposed amendment to the Arizona Constitution would require anyone who spends at least $5,000 to influence the outcome of an election in Arizona to disclose the original source of the money. It would apply to all state and local campaigns in Arizona.

To refer the proposal to the ballot for next year’s general election, Outlaw Dirty Money, the campaign committee behind the citizen initiative, will have to collect at least 356,467 valid signatures by July 20, 2020.

“This Constitutional Amendment is intended to secure the right of the People of Arizona to know the original source of all major contributions used to influence Arizona elections, to prevent corruption and to assist Arizona voters in making informed election decisions,” the proposed amendment reads.

Outlaw Dirty Money plans to kick off its campaign at 1 p.m. on Wednesday at the state Capitol.

For Outlaw Dirty Money to be successful, it will have to avoid the pitfalls that sidelined efforts to ban dark money during the past two election cycles.

Last year, Outlaw Dirty Money fell just 2,071 signatures short of 225,963 it needed to qualify for the ballot. A judge disqualified nearly 9,000 signatures after 15 paid circulators the campaign had hired didn’t respond to subpoenas instructing them to show up in court. State law requires all signatures collected by a person be disallowed if they fail to respond to a subpoena.

In 2016, Goddard and others pulled the plug on an effort for dual ballot measures banning dark money and creating an “open” or “top-two” primary election system after their primary funder withdrew his support.

The campaign for the Voters’ Right to Know Act is kicking off significantly earlier than its 2018 predecessor, and it may need to, given the vastly increased number of signatures it needs to get on the November 2020 ballot.

The number of signatures needed to refer a proposed constitutional amendment to the ballot is equal to 15 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent race for governor. Because Arizona gubernatorial races are held in non-presidential election years, voter turnout is relatively low. But 2018 saw unprecedented turnout for a midterm election. The 2.3 million votes cast last year shattered the previous record for a midterm election in Arizona, which had been 1.5 million in 2010.

Goddard said the campaign is kicking off much earlier than it did for the 2018 election because he plans to use all volunteers, rather than use paid petitioners whose signatures can be disqualified if they don’t respond to subpoenas. And he noted that it needs more than 100,000 more signatures than last time.

Goddard said the Arizona Supreme Court sent a clear message about using paid circulators last year when it upheld the 2014 subpoena law, which has proved an effective weapon for keeping citizen initiatives off the ballot. Opponents of the initiative delivered their subpoenas to an office building that had previously been used for the campaign. They were given to a security guard on a weekend, which Goddard called a “sneak attack.”

Most of Outlaw Dirty Money’s signatures were collected by volunteers last year, but it supplemented its efforts with paid gatherers. Goddard noted that, while the campaign officially began in November 2017, it didn’t really begin collecting signatures until February.

“We were basically building the plane as we were flying,” he said.

Now, Outlaw Dirty Money will have nearly a year and a half to collect signatures. And it starts with contact information from about 2,000 experienced volunteers who collected signatures for last year’s campaign.

“We start with a volunteer army,” Goddard said. “Look at (2018) as an investment in a better operation now.”

Goddard said the campaign has another advantage it lacked last time: a national partner that will provide funding. He said Voters’ Right to Know, a California-based anti-dark-money group, has pledged to contribute one dollar for every two Outlaw Dirty Money raises.

Under the proposal, the Citizens Clean Elections Commission would enforce the new campaign finance disclosure rules. It includes a new provision that wasn’t part of the 2018 version, exempting the commission’s anti-dark money rules from oversight by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council. Voters last year approved a ballot measure subjecting the commission to the council’s oversight, which critics viewed as an effort to restrict the commission’s enforcement of campaign finance laws, including against dark money organizations.

Candidate campaigns and outside groups that support or oppose them must report their contributors. But corporations and nonprofit groups that spend money to influence campaigns don’t have to disclose where they get their money under state law. And federal law permits 501(c)(4) nonprofit “social welfare” organizations to spend in elections, provided that their primary purpose isn’t election-related. The practice became prevalent following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 campaign finance ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In 2014, dark money groups spent millions in Arizona to help Gov. Doug Ducey win his Republican primary battle, as well as to defeat Goddard in his campaign for secretary of state and aid GOP candidates in other races. The Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a conservative organization, spent heavily to aid Republican candidates for Corporation Commission and secretary of state, with the money widely believed to have originated with utility giant Arizona Public Service or its parent company, Pinnacle West.

More recently, several dark money groups waded into the recent race for Phoenix mayor, backing Daniel Valenzuela over eventual winner Kate Gallego.

Dark money foes argue that anonymous funding opens the door to corruption and deprives voters of the ability to make informed choices about who is funding campaigns. Opponents of increased disclosure, who often take issue with the term “dark money,” say such measures infringe on free speech rights and subject those who bankroll campaigns to retaliation.

Outlaw Dirty Money’s proposal would head off pending showdowns between the state and the cities of Phoenix and Tempe over anti-dark-money laws they enacted last year. State Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, sponsored legislation, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed last year, barring cities from enacting their own regulations to require disclosure of dark money. Leach has asked Attorney General Mark Brnovich to determine whether Tempe’s ordinance violates that law, while Phoenix is still waiting for Ducey to sign off on its dark money ordinance, which is required before it can go into effect.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”