PHOENIX — Voters in Arizona, sharply divided over which candidates should represent them, found broad agreement Tuesday on a different matter — those candidates should not take office propelled by major sums of undisclosed money.
That was the message sent by an emphatic victory for a ballot measure to curb undisclosed spending in political races, sometimes referred to as “dark money.” The money is veiled because it travels through nonprofits, which are exempt under current law from disclosing their donors.
The measure, Proposition 211, requires any group making independent expenditures of at least $50,000 in statewide races or $25,000 in other races to report donors contributing more than $5,000.
Voters favored that idea by a lopsided margin, with about 73 percent backing the measure based on ballots tabulated by Wednesday afternoon. The Associated Press declared the measure a winner. Only uncontested races and a handful of state legislative and judicial contests had wider margins in incomplete results.
The new disclosure rules were embraced despite Republican misinformation about their effects. In a bid to turn voters against the measure, the Arizona GOP falsely warned residents that it “would create a new tax for certain business activities,” according to a sample ballot mailed to voters and obtained by The Washington Post. A spokeswoman for the state party did not respond to a request for comment about the messaging.
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Approval of the measure could galvanize similar efforts elsewhere, said Terry Goddard, the former Democratic attorney general of Arizona who spearheaded the move to put the issue on the ballot, his fourth attempt to do so since 2016. This effort, despite Tuesday’s approval, may still face new litigation and obstruction from the GOP-controlled legislature.
In Arizona, Goddard said, undisclosed money accounts for a larger share of campaign-related spending than it does in any other state. “If a state that’s been the worst when it comes to dark money can become one of the best, that should be inspiring to other states to make the same changes,” he said.
Goddard, who served two terms as the state’s top law enforcement officer, said his motivation was simple: “I thought the way anonymous cash was perverting our campaigns was obnoxious.”
The initiative is part of a wave of efforts throughout the country to put new transparency and disclosure rules directly to voters as campaign finance overhauls fail to muster the GOP support necessary to advance at the federal level.
Two years ago, voters in Alaska approved new disclosure rules as part of a ballot measure that also included open primaries and ranked-choice voting. In 2018, a ballot measure in North Dakota amended the state constitution to ban political contributions from foreign governments, foreign corporations and foreign individuals. Voters in Oregon may have an opportunity to weigh in on sweeping campaign finance changes in 2024.
In Arizona, the measure overcame opposition from Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, and state-level organizations similarly organized as nonprofits and therefore exempt from disclosing their donors. They included the Arizona Free Enterprise Club as well as the Center for Arizona Policy and its political arm, the Center for Arizona Policy Action.
Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, argued that the measure’s effect would be “chilling the political speech of donors to more conservative organizations and setting them up for harassment and intimidation from those who disagree.”
The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal echoed that warning, singling out the state measure for criticism last week and painting it as a Democratic initiative. “Democrats have failed to pass restrictions on political speech in Congress, so they’re taking the fight to state ballots,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote. “The latest salvo is a little-noticed measure in Arizona that would require disclosure of the ‘original source of monies used for campaign media spending.’ ”
That irked David Tedesco, an Arizona businessman and registered independent who helped fund the effort to get the measure on the ballot.
In a letter responding to the Wall Street Journal editorial, he noted that most of the financial support for Prop 211 “came from registered independents and Republicans.” He also pointed to high-profile Republicans in the state who were supporting the ballot measure, including a former governor, Fife Symington.
Tedesco said the measure’s overwhelming approval Tuesday meant a “huge portion of every major voting bloc had to vote in favor.” That offered resounding evidence, he said, that the initiative was not a “Democratic maneuver,” not tied to one party or another, but a democratic ambition, designed to empower voters.