Outside the Check-Box

Clean Elections wants your $5, but mainly it wants your attention.

On the Arizona state tax return form, there's a little box. When you check it, $5 of your taxes goes to the Citizens Clean Elections Fund.

It's a simple concept. But Clean Elections itself is not.

According to a recent study by the U.S. General Accounting Office, following last year's election, more than a third of Arizona's voters still had no clue what Clean Elections is or how it works. In a nutshell, the program allows state candidates to fully pay for their campaigns by collecting money from the government.

This coming year, the commission that administers the program thinks the best way to educate voters is through its $5 tax check-box. And the public relations companies the commission has contracted believe the best way to advertise the check box is to plaster propaganda to the tops of pizza boxes, on the sides of grocery bags, on automobile floor mats and on the outside of a Volkswagen Bug they send around the state.

L3 Creative and its PR partner, Barclay Communications, would like to see the checked boxes increase by 50 percent this year--that is, from 278,000 tax-paying participants to 417,000.

However, with $10.5 million already handy, Clean Elections doesn't need the money. The program is easily taken care of by the fund's main income source, a 10 percent tax attached to all criminal and civil fines. Critics have said that with its unnecessary tax scheme, the program takes much-needed money away from the state budget.

The commission's chairman, Gene Lemon, says this argument is off base. Lemon says they aren't really taking money away from the general fund, since it's almost a foregone conclusion that next year, the commission will have to give the state more than the check box brought in.

As of May, the check-box intake was nearly $1.4 million. Only a few months earlier, the commission handed over $1.7 million to the state general fund because the commission had more money than it could spend.

Then, the question arises: Why should the commission bother asking for the money if they're just going give it away?

Lemon's answer, part one: "The $5 check-off is the simplest way to get taxpayers and registered voters involved in the process."

Lemon's answer, part two: "The law requires us to spend 10 percent of the fund on voter education. In election years, that's not hard to do, printing (candidate statement) pamphlets. But in non-election years, promoting the $5 check box is the best way."

The group behind the Clean Elections initiative campaign in 1998 isn't exactly thrilled with these "gimmicks."

Barbara Lubin, the executive director of the Clean Elections Institute, singles out several points of incompetence in marketing firms' plans. First, there's the grocery bags. They can only print ads on the side of paper bags--and most people use plastic. Secondly, firms want to send "reminder postcards" to taxpayers who donated last year, and Lubin points out that the Department of Revenue doesn't exactly release that information.

Lastly, the strategic outline L3 sent the commission was so riddled with factual, grammatical and typographical errors that it's hard to believe any campaign they produce would be worth spending as much as $105,000 on.

In 1998, when voters approved the program put forth by Arizonans for Clean Elections (later the Clean Elections Institute), the rationale was that the program would begin to pry the talons of special interest groups from politics and increase competition.

The Institute suggests that commission advertise the "Clean Elections Story" by citing other figures from the GAO report. For example, 81 percent of Arizona's candidates who ran on Clean Elections money said they did so to avoid special interest pressure, and 56 percent said that the money was available played a big part in their decision to run.

"We want to be very careful we are simply administering the law and not promoting one policy or another of how you should run for office," Lemon said.

Lemon's hesitation is understandable: One slip in wording and the commission could be accused of supporting one Clean Elections candidate over his privately funded opponent.

The Institute doesn't see eye to eye with the commissioner on this point.

"Just as the Department of Transportation educates motorists and citizens about safety and freeway progress, the commission should have no hesitation telling citizens how successful the law has been," Institute President Wes Gullett wrote in a letter to the commission.

Whether it worked that way or not is open to debate. According to the GAO report, of the 63 percent of Arizona voters who actually knew about Clean Elections, a quarter said that Clean Elections had no effect on the political influence of special interests.

The commission will have to agree separately to every promotional ploy generated and priced by L3 and Barclay. In the meantime, Lemon says the commission plans to go over the GAO statistics and compare them to surveys of their own.

"We're going to take a step back and try to do within the next few weeks a polling to get some baseline of what the public understanding of the Clean Election Act is," Lemon said. "When we looked at the number of $5 contributions, it is up 20 percent this year, and last year, it was up 40 percent from the year before. I think there's much more than the GAO found."