Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett discusses the need for changes to Arizona’s campaign contribution laws in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows unlimited campaign contributions from corporations and labor unions.
Ted Simons: A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court lifted limits on campaign ads paid for by corporations and labor unions. Here to tell us if that will require any changes to Arizona's campaign finance laws is secretary of state Ken Bennett. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
Ken Bennett: Thank you. Good to be here.
Ted Simons: The impact of the Supreme Court ruling on limiting campaign -- lifting the limits on campaign --
Ken Bennett: Actually there are no limits.
Ted Simons: Impact on Arizona. What are you seeing?
Ken Bennett: Well, we don't know what we're going to see, which is why we're trying to put in place legislation to make sure that when corporations and unions, if they choose to weigh in directly with corporate general treasury funds, which they've never been able to do in Arizona, so it not only -- we not only didn't have any limits, it was completely prohibited. Corporations in union could not use their corporate general funds to advocate in elections for or against candidates. Some of them ended up going through and setting up political action committees and things like that. But now that the Supreme Court has said that that voice of those entities cannot be prohibited, and that they can weigh in with their own direct funds, it really is going to challenge us to come up with a reporting mechanism so that they can report to our office and then we can put immediately up on the website something that the voters will find meaningful to say, I just heard an ad yesterday for or against some candidate, and who is paying for that thing, or it sounded like it was coming from a place, I don't know, we normally don't hear from.
Ted Simons: As far as the reports are concerned, correct me if I'm wrong, your idea is $5,000 for statewide races, above $5,000 and above?
Ken Bennett: Yes. Well, the idea is instead of requiring these corporations or unions to register in a formal political committee realm like you normally do, and have you seven or eight reports that you have to keep track of, and reports throughout the year, what we're really looking for is a system where they'll be able to, within 24 hours of going to the people with a message, that they would simply report the threshold of $5,000 you're talking about is, we don't want them to report if they spend $50 somewhere. But at some point we have to say that if you spend at least $5,000 on a statewide race or $2500 on a legislative race, or a thousand at a local level, that you're going to report that information to -- in a very simplified, straightforward way, and you don't have to worry about prefiling other reports or worrying about reports after that fact. Every time you spend that threshold amount of money, though, you should tell the public, we're corporation ABC, and we spent money in this race.
Ted Simons: You report within 24 hours of what? A check cashing, a commercial airing?
Ken Bennett: You report within 24 hours of delivering the message to the voters. So when something hits the radio waves, or the T.V., or is deposited in the -- when a mailer is deposited in the post office, it's not from the -- when you pay for it, because some may pay way ahead of time, decide not to do it after all, and so we thought that the main trigger is when the message is communicated to the voters.
Ted Simons: The idea of a false report being a felony, up to two years in jail, why is that important?
Ken Bennett: Well, it's important that we have a deterrent against just anybody getting on our system and saying, the -- with all due respect, with lack of a better organization, the Klu Klux Klan just weighed in and spent money to support candidate Jones, to just completely falsify and misrepresent that maybe candidate Jones is in alignment with that organization. So it's those very egregious situations where the felony kicks in. If somebody doesn't file their report within 24 hours or they get some of those little things wrong, the felony doesn't kick in except for the very fraudulent situations. Where somebody is misrepresenting who they're speaking for, or trying to really create a guise of supporting or opposing somebody to really affect them in a normal way.
Ted Simons: Is that delineation focused enough? Is that going to be clear enough for the law?
Ken Bennett: We're working on that. We have worked extensively with stakeholders, attorneys, of course, candidates, the parties. We've had several stakeholder meetings, we're going to try to make sure that we tie those things down as tight as they can or need to be. You never get it right, maybe the -- completely right the first time, so if we have to come in and tweak it a little bit down the road, we'll do that too. But we're going to try to have something in place for this fall so that when or if these corporations and unions start to advocate for or against candidates, that the general public -- this is really for the general public. So that they know who's telling me why this guy is so good or bad.
Ted Simons: And critics of your move here say that we don't need to know who's saying what. That anonymous advocacy has been a part of the country's history, and that it's not necessary and this is just a burden, and it -- they've got other ideas as to why this is being pushed as well. We can maybe get to those. But why is it important that we do know this?
Ted Simons: Well, I think most voters understand and respect that when someone is trying to influence their vote, the identity of the organization or person or group that's trying to influence their vote is very critical. If you get a campaign mailer at your house, and it says "vote for Mr. Jones," if Mr. Jones' campaign committee is mailing it to you, it's kind of important to know who is sending that. Conversely, if some enemy, or whatever, of Mr. Jones is sending you something that says, "this is the worst guy in the world," who is saying the message is pretty important? Yes, we have a history in the country of anonymous, the federalist papers and some of those things back when the country was being formed. But usually that was anonymous voices speaking on principles of how the government ought to be formed and put together. When it takes the form of directly advocating for or against a specific candidate, I think the voters want to and deserve to know who's sending them that message.
Ted Simons: So, again, when we talk about corporate speech and union speech that attempts to influence the outcome of a candidate election, that's what you're talking about. But what's the difference between influencing an election and just influencing opinion? Just educating the public? How do we balance that?
Ken Bennett: Well, in this bill, this would only apply if corporations or unions are speaking in specific elections. If they're just doing general voter education, or general public service ads, or whatever it is, if they're not speaking specifically about certain candidates, or for or against anyone in particular, then they're free as they always have been, to try to educate the public on whatever other issues they might want to weigh in on. But when it gets to specific individual candidates --
Ted Simons: So you don't see it necessarily as the critics would say there's a chilling effect here by knowing that Ted's Hamburger Hamlet is supporting this particular candidate, and anyone who thinks that candidate is a knucklehead -- do you know what I'm saying? I may not put money there, because I don't want to be publicly associated. But I still want to donate.
Ken Bennett: Well, if a corporate -- if a corporate entity or a union feels strongly enough that they want to use money out of their direct treasury, where they have full and complete control, and also that the public knows that they are doing whatever they do independent of the candidate's campaign, this is all based on the independent expenditure concept in campaigns in Arizona, where if a corporation or anyone else for that matter, kind of gets behind the scenes and agrees with a candidate, we'll spend millions of dollars promoting you, that's really a contribution to their campaign and should be reported as such. But if they are truly independent, and they're just using their own money to speak their own voice for or against any one candidate, they're free to do so. If they don't feel that strongly about it, that they can probably contribute $500 to the chamber of commerce or the good government committee or something somewhere, and that group can decide which candidate they may or may not want to help. But if they are spending their direct corporate funds, we think people ought to know who's behind it.
Ted Simons: All right. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
Ken Bennett: Thanks.
Ken Bennett:Arizona Secretary of State;