Imagine you are competing in a marathon. Every time you pull into the lead, someone picks up the other runners in a van and lets them off next to you. When you object, he says you are still free to run as hard as you want.
That is how supporters of Arizona's campaign finance system respond to candidates who complain that it burdens their freedom of speech by providing "matching funds" to their opponents.
The Supreme Court, which last week blocked those subsidies as it considers a constitutional challenge to them, should overturn this misguided attempt to equalize speech by controlling campaign spending.
Because communicating a message to voters requires money, it is well established that direct restrictions on campaign spending violate the First Amendment. Arizona's Citizens Clean Elections Act therefore seeks to restrict campaign spending indirectly.
The law sets an initial level of public funding for each state election. Participating candidates get a check for that amount. They also receive matching funds if their nonparticipating opponents spend more.
For a candidate who prefers forcibly extracting subsidies from his fellow citizens to seeking their voluntary support, this system offers a pretty good deal. He gets a dollar for each dollar spent by his privately funded opponents or by independent groups that support them.
From the perspective of a privately funded candidate, the system does not look so good, especially if he faces multiple opponents, in which case each dollar he spends to get elected may trigger three or four dollars aimed at defeating him. Worse, money spent by groups he does not control also can trigger more subsidies for his opponents. For their part, independent groups have to think twice before criticizing a publicly funded candidate, because they know that doing so will give him a financial boost.
The upshot is that the Clean Elections Act deters speech by increasing its cost and reducing its effectiveness. Several candidates for the state legislature, joined by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club and the Arizona Taxpayers Action Committee, cite this chilling effect in their challenge to the law.