Maine Shows That Publicly Financed Elections Really Can Work

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Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM/ Flickr CC 2.0

Andrew Bossie
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections
Almost 20 years ago, Maine voters approved a transformative initiative to put elections back where they belong, in the hands of everyday people. The proposal, passed by voters in 1996 and put into effect for the 2000 election cycle, had a simple premise: our elected officials should be accountable to the people electing them, not wealthy donors and special interests trying to curry favor.

Under this Clean Election Act, legislative candidates who demonstrate broad support can choose to qualify for public funds for their campaign by collecting a large number of small contributions and agreeing to forgo raising large contributions.

It worked well for several cycles. Hundreds of candidates were able to run and win office without prostrating themselves before big donors and lobbyists. Farmers, waitresses, and others who usually can’t make their voice heard in politics were able to go to Maine’s state capital Augusta and represent their constituents free from the influence of special interest cash.

The Clean Election Act has allowed Mainers to have a government that’s truly reflective and accountable to the voters. A 2007 study conducted by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, showed that seven out of 10 women said that having the Clean Election Act was very important in their decision to run for office and that more women ran for office as a result of public financing. Former Maine Senator Deb Simpson, who was a single mom and waitress when she decided to run for the state house using Clean Elections, said of the system that it allowed her the resources “without having to figure out how to ask for money from donors when I really didn’t live in that world.”

In the 2014 book, White-Collar Government, author Nicholas Carnes praises Maine as having the most blue-collar legislature in the country, with one out of seven state representatives holding blue-collar jobs. He goes on to draw a correlation between Maine’s strong public policy geared toward working-class people and our citizen-led legislature of diverse economic backgrounds.

At one point, a full 85 percent of the legislature was elected using Clean Elections, but then the United States Supreme Court got in the way. In a one-two punch of decisions, Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett and Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court made it harder for publicly financed candidates to compete with newly-empowered outside groups.

As a result, on Election Day 2014, just over half of the winning candidates used the Clean Election Act to fund their campaigns. Fortunately, something else happened that day — Mainers fought back. Nearly 1,000 volunteers, working with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, fanned out across the state to collect signatures for a ballot initiative to restore Clean Elections, enhance disclosure and increase the accountability of our elected officials. This January, we submitted over 85,000 signatures to the Secretary of State, more than enough to put a question on the ballot this November.

At the press conference announcing the signatures, former Republican State Senator Ed Youngblood said, “So much about politics is about divisions, but in this Clean Election endeavor, we are Mainers first. Republicans like me worked alongside Democrats, Greens and unenrolled voters to collect these signatures. That is a reflection of the widespread concern about the skyrocketing cost of elections and the growing role of Big Money.”

The ballot initiative is straightforward. We’re asking voters to approve changes to the law that will restore the viability of Clean Elections, so we can once again have a government that is accountable to everyday voters, and not bought and paid for by wealthy special interests. When enacted, this initiative will shine a light on dark money in our elections by strengthening disclosure and transparency laws. It would also raise fines and penalties on those that break our campaign finance laws – a practice which lately has become all too common.

Over the next 10 months, we’ll be talking to Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and any Mainer who will listen, encouraging them to vote in favor of this initiative to ensure the longtime viability of this landmark law.

Mainers — and everyone in America — want and deserve a government that’s of, by and for the people. In 1996, Maine took a bold step in showing the rest of the country how to do that. It’s our turn to do it again.

Andrew Bossie is executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE) Prior to joining MCCE, Andrew served as the Executive Director of the Maine AIDS Alliance.
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