Referendum would reform Maine’s Clean Elections law

As the fall days go by we are beginning to see some of our fellow Mainers engaging in the time-honored tradition of raking together and jumping into piles of…money. It is not too soon for candidates for the next election, still over a year away, to be storing acorns in preparation for the siege that will begin in earnest after the first of the year.

Once upon a time a candidate could substitute sweat equity for dollars and win a seat in the legislature on the strength of a person-to-person campaign. Candidates are still expected to show up at a certain number of doors in the district, pepper neighborhoods with lawn signs and hand out brochures. But where that used to constitute an entire campaign, much more is expected now.

Newspaper ads, and even TV in the urban markets, are de rigueur. Attack ads, once considered a breach of etiquette in neighborly Maine, are par for the course and demand a response. Both the political parties and various interest groups are raising breathtaking amounts of money to influence the outcome of elections. Bah, humbug.

Here in Maine we have the opportunity to take a tiny baby step toward sanity. A referendum proposing modest campaign finance reforms will be before us on Nov. 3. The referendum proposes three changes to existing law.

It would increase the Maine Clean Elections Fund established by voters in 1996 and provide a way for candidates to qualify for additional funds if they are outspent by an opponent not participating in the “clean elections” system. The Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision in 2014 struck down the original matching funds component of Maine’s Clean Election law.

Since then, fewer and fewer candidates have opted to run a “clean elections” campaign, fearing they would be overwhelmed by candidates able to raise and spend as much money as they could. The proposed law would enable a Clean Elections candidate to qualify for additional funds by soliciting additional $5 contributions.

It would require disclosure of the top three donors to an entity making an expenditure “to design, produce or disseminate a communication that names or depicts a clearly identified candidate” in an upcoming election.

Currently those contributions may be made anonymously, preventing voters from knowing just who is trying to influence the vote. Finally, the referendum would increase the penalties for violations of campaign finance law.

Elected officials are quick to say that campaign donations do not influence the way they vote. Ha. The system is awash in money, members of Congress reportedly spend more than half of their time in office dialing for dollars, and citizens (or corporations) with the means continue to make bigger and bigger contributions. They are not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.

Further dampening the enthusiasm of the local voter who feels powerless in the face of this spending tsunami, much of the money being spent on Maine elections is coming from out of state. These are not donors interested in Maine for Maine’s sake. They are interested in adding another name to the list of governors or legislatures who share their party affiliation, securing the future for their party’s national agenda.

In his book “Six Amendments,” retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens takes issue with a comment from Chief Justice John Roberts. “He says there is ‘no right more basic in our democracy’ than to pick our elected officials. But the case is not about whether individuals can pick their own congressmen. It’s about giving lots of campaign contributions, picking other people’s congressmen, not your own.”

There are plenty of questions that can be raised about the referendum. Why identify only the top three donors to independent expenditures? Is Clean Elections the best use of additional funds? (The money will come from previously identified tax loopholes.)

The Maine Citizens for Clean Elections developed the referendum question with three goals in mind: it must win voter support, it must be able to be implemented and it must make a positive difference. U.S. Sen. Angus King and former Sen. George Mitchell think it hits the mark. Both have endorsed it, and they are not alone.

Across the aisle, Rick Bennett, former Republican Senate president and current chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said in a 2012 Sun Journal piece that his “enthusiasm for Clean Elections is rooted in my belief that all qualified Maine people should have access to run for office, and they should have the ability to run competitive campaigns. The act, he said, “has been good for our democracy.”

Said former Republican Sen. Ed Youngblood, “We must move forward in the fight against outside wealthy and corporate interests, not backward by allowing the system to wither on the vine.” Sen. Youngblood serves on the MCCE board.

It has been suggested that members of Congress and our legislatures be obligated to wear NASCAR-type jackets displaying the names of their “sponsors.” Funny. More practically, in Rick Bennett’s words: “Let us get to work to shore up the Clean Election system and get corporate money out of state elections.”

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.

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