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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Are "voter-owned elections" unconstitutional?

While Portland voters ponder whether to keep or throw out "voter-owned elections" -- the city's quixotic taxpayer financing of politicians' City Council campaigns -- a new U.S. Supreme Court order throws the legality of at least some aspects of the Portland "clean money" system into question. Apparently the Court is unhappy with provisions of Arizona law that allow publicly financed candidates extra public money when their opponents spend more than the "clean" candidates. The Arizona rules may impinge upon the speech rights of the opponents, in violation of the First Amendment, as the Court has for decades adhered to the view that spending money to disseminate a message is a form of protected speech.

When last I looked, the Portland system had a matching mechanism in it similar to the Arizona law -- I believe Amanda Fritz and Erik "Opie" Sten both benefited from it in past years.

So far, the High Court has forbidden Arizona from shelling out more "clean money" to match opponent spending in the governor's race down there -- pending a likely full hearing on the merits of the constitutional claim sometime in the fall. Meanwhile, Portland voters will pass on the city's program on November 2. It seems highly unlikely that the Supreme Court will issue a final opinion in the Arizona case before then.

Comments (2)

I've been generally sympathetic to the Supreme Court's decisions striking down limitations on campaign contributions and expenditures but I'm having a hard time following their reasoning on this.

I don't see how it limits one candidate's free speech rights by giving another candidate more money to spend, regardless of the source of the money. I thought the whole idea was that speech is an absolute, not a comparative, right.

It will be interesting to see where this ends up.

Although SCOTUS has introduced the taint of unconstitutionality, the real problem with Portland's VOE gesture is that it encourages the futile commission form of governance. Five (5) commissioners in a city this large and complex are too few for representational democracy. Public moneys are wasted on what is merely a simulacrum of democracy.

Most recently, Bob Ball -- much maligned by the alleged, divisive mayor -- tried unsuccessfully to change the structure by referendum, but voter apathy proved too pervasive to rid ourselves of what no longer works for us.

We should not have people elected in popularity contests, without regard for their professional capacity or competence, supervising the bureaus that provide our basic city services, should we?

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