system for candidates and enforces financial reporting rules.
SB 1516 significantly shrunk the commission’s power so that it only could police candidates who receive public financing.
The Arizona Advocacy Network (an open-elections watchdog group), Democrats and the commission challenged the law in court, arguing it illegally gutted the meaning of the act.
Palmer, in his ruling, agreed: “The commission and the plaintiffs are correct.”
Attorney Jim Barton, who argued against SB 1516, said the ruling is a victory for transparency in elections.
He said the Clean Elections Commission has shown it is more willing to enforce rules than state elections officials are.
“It’s very clear that that watchdog isn’t going to be restrained,” Barton said Thursday.
Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, cheered the ruling in an email: “As Arizonans, we know Clean Elections is the best tool we have to fight corruption, dark money, and undue corporate influence.”
Secretary of State Michele Reagan, the state’s top elections official, was a key architect of the law. While an appeal is likely, her office hasn’t commented in detail.
“We’re taking a look and determining next steps,” spokesman Matt Roberts said in a text message.
Ruling also impacts party spending
Palmer’s ruling also overturned a controversial provision of SB 1516 that allowed political parties to spend unlimited amounts of money in coordination with candidate campaigns.
That loophole played a key role in this year’s elections, with Republicans spending millions in coordination with Ducey and the Democratic Party doing the same with Secretary of State-elect Katie Hobbs.
Under the 2016 law, the parties didn’t have to disclose how much was spent on behalf of each candidate, making it impossible to track their spending.
Barton said the ruling will change that because money a party spends in coordination with a candidate’s campaign will once again fall under traditional limits for in-kind expenditures.
Impacts to some unlimited donations
The ruling also strikes down a portion of SB 1516 that allowed unlimited contributions if they specifically paid for a campaign’s legal or accounting services.
Palmer ruled that the disputed portions of the act violated a portion of the Arizona Constitution that prohibits changes to voter-approved initiatives unless the changes are supported by three-fourths of the Legislature and further the purpose of the act.
“One cannot determine in this case, given the purposes behind the (Clean Elections Act), that voters intended that the Legislature would in essence eradicate the very core of the act,” he wrote.
However, the ruling didn’t undo a portion of SB 1516 that largely ceded Arizona’s authority to police anonymous campaign spending, or so-called “dark money,” to the federal government.
That legality of that portion of the law wasn’t addressed in Wednesday’s ruling.