Mainers vote on Clean Elections referendum

For the past couple of weeks, discussion on “Yes on One” has been flooding social media and political discourse in the state of Maine. This past Tuesday, Maine voters took to the polls to vote on whether or not to strengthen the existing Maine Clean Elections Act. This referendum would increase the grants to candidates and allow for more “matching money”. Matching money is a system of grants that works to publicly fund candidates, who may not normally have access to significant campaign war chests. This would also include an increase and strengthening of campaign finance laws such as donor disclosure laws on advertisements and contributions, as well as larger penalties for violations. The referendum would increase both the public funding system and strengthen the other aspects of the law.  With the hope of getting money out of Maine politics, this act of legislation can be a stepping-stone in the national debate over campaign finance.

The Maine Clean Elections Act, or MCEA, is a voluntary system of full public financing for candidates. It is available to any Maine candidate running for State Representative, State Senator, or Governor. Those on the ballot who opt into this system will receive their campaigning funds from the Maine Clean Election Fund. As explained by the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, “In a tight budget climate, it’s more important than ever that legislators identify the right priorities for Maine. When people are elected to office without accepting money from special interests, they have a very different relationship with the lobbyists who represent those interests. Maine people benefit when decision-makers are not compromised by a reliance on private money.”

The proposed MCEA would increase public spending on elections, injecting an additional two million dollars into the Clean Election System, raising the budget to a total of six million dollars. It also plans to eliminate corporate tax breaks that are not functioning at full capacity. Significantly, it will require outside groups who are spending money in Maine elections to publicly disclose their top three donors.

Advocates for the MCEA argue that not only does it move away from a reliance on private donations, but that it has encouraged a more diverse pool of candidates and better campaigning overall as candidates are spending more time with voters than wealthy donors. Although it is a voluntary system, a majority of candidates choose to opt in. For example, as of fall 2014, 53 percent of candidates opted to participate. In a statement by the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, “The system is voluntary, so candidates don’t have to use it, but most Maine people would prefer that the candidates who want to represent them in Augusta use Clean Elections rather than going to special interests for campaign dollars.” They argue that despite the unlimited campaign budget advantage that non-MCEA candidates may have, there appears to be a political advantage in opting into this program.

Recently a group of conservative state legislators formed the Political Action Committee (PAC) Mainers Against Welfare for Politicians. State Representative Bob Foley, a member of the PAC, commented to seacoastonline.com, “it’s a false negative to say you need to get money out of politics so it creates a level playing field. This is Maine. I haven’t met anybody in Augusta from either party whose motives I question, and that money can be better spent on programs that really impact Maine people.” Other opponents question the outside state contributions to the fund. “Why do so many out-of-state people want to affect Maine election law with so much money,” Foley asked, “What is the ulterior motive? It raises flags to me.” But Andrew Bossie, executive director of the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, contested this when he stated to seacoastonline.com, “There’s an interest all over the country from people who want to make sure we win here in Maine. This is a beacon of hope just as it was in 1996. We face an erosion of democracy from a very wealthy few. People all over the country want to see a truly representative democracy again.”

The Echo sat down and talked to Colby Professor of Government Tony Corrado, an expert in political finance, about his impression on the proposed changes to the MCEA. “This is designed to help with the problem of money in politics,” Corrado stated, “but it is certainly not going to solve the problem of money in politics.” Traditionally, underrepresented candidates will turn to public funding for their campaigns. However, “even with public funding, independent political groups can still spend as much money as they want” commented Corrado. This is due to a constitutional right under the first amendment. This ability for independent organizations to support candidates no matter what, eliminates the equality within the system that public funding attempts to create. With this upcoming vote, Corrado explains that, “public funding people are all very focused on Maine to see what Maine does. There is an enormous amount of national attention.”

With the Tuesday vote, advocates for public funding will have their eyes on Maine. If this referendum passes, Maine will again be at the forefront of changes in campaign finance. Since the MCEA passed in 1996, it has faced a lot of debate regarding constitutionality and effectiveness. This could result in Maine setting an example for the rest of the country by confronting problems in campaign finance.

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