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Maine Leads the Nation in Campaign Finance Reform
The head of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections talks about the corrupting influence of money in politics and what we can do about it.
"I like to say that democracy isn’t a noun; it’s a verb. It’s something we have to constantly do."
State-level initiatives will be an important path to progressive reform in the coming years, particularly in the area of campaign finance, and Maine is at the forefront of democratizing elections at the local level.
In November, the state passed a ranked-choice voting initiative, which prevents third-party candidates from splitting the votes of one party and handing the election to an unpopular candidate. That problem has allowed Paul LePage, the hard-right Republican ideologue who is Maine’s current governor, to remain in power. LePage won his bid in 2014 with 48 percent of the vote, and he won in 2010 with some 38 percent, largely because Democrats split their vote between his two opponents. Under the new system, voters will rank their preferences rather than choosing just one candidate.
Ranked-choice reform was a milestone in a much longer story. In 1996, Maine voters approved a clean elections initiative that provided for public financing of legislative and gubernatorial campaigns. In 2011, courts struck down a provision of the program that gave candidates who took part matching funds from the state—that is, funds to match the amount of private money raised by their opponents. Without that provision, the candidates who took part in the program were vulnerable to being swamped by outside spending. Participation declined, from a high of 81 percent of candidates in 2008 to 53 percent in the 2014 election cycle.
Last year, voters passed a referendum to address the problem. The program now works like this: Candidates who opt in to the clean elections program must prove their viability by raising $5 donations from a certain number of one-time donors. After this qualifying round, certain benchmarks trigger more funding. Each time the candidate passes a benchmark, they receive a new round of funds.
The reformed program was in effect in November and seems to have revitalized clean elections in Maine, with 62 percent of candidates for the state legislature taking part.
To help explain Maine’s clean elections reform, In These Times recently spoke with Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE)—the group behind the change. Here’s what he had to say about about power, politics and about the prospect of bringing campaign finance reform to the nation.
How did the first clean elections reform, in 1996, come about?
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, lawmakers in Maine would literally be handed checks by special interest lobbyists as they would walk into the chamber. And there was a series of different stories about how lax regulations affected people’s lives, including one about a tired trucker who careened, after working a long shift and falling asleep, into a 17-year-old girl in a car. Regulations were pretty lax for truckers. And that incident was pretty explosive.
The same kind of thing was going on with our natural resources. So a group of different folks from the environmental sector, labor, Republicans who were concerned about crony capitalism, and religious leaders and groups came together to say we have to be able to do something about this. And a few of them basically dreamt up the [Maine] Clean Elections Act on the back of a napkin. And they formed a coalition, Maine Voters for Clean Elections, and started to perfect the initiative. They collected the signatures in 1995, with more than 1,000 volunteers across the state, and in 1996, voters went to the polls and passed the Maine Clean Elections Act by more than 10 points. The law took four years to put into effect, so we had our first candidates running under the clean elections program in 2000.
Does the outside money flooding into elections as a result of Citizens United swamp these state-level reforms?
There are limited things we can do to stuff Citizens United back in the box, but one of the pillars that the court has constantly stood up for, so far, is disclosure. So, along with the changes to clean elections and how that works, we included a provision [in the 2015 reform] that every independent expenditure in the state, from legislative to gubernatorial races, must list its top three funders in the ad. That gives voters a better idea of who’s paying for these outside ads, and we think that’s a good thing.
You can’t affect the amount of money coming in, but you can at least shine some light on it?
Right. The other thing that was starting to happen in Maine, before our initiative, was that outside groups would come in and evade our disclosure laws by filing late or not filing at all. And the fines were so minuscule that some groups called them just the cost of doing business. They would just intentionally evade filing the reports. The largest fine ever levied by the state was in 2009, when Maine was going to vote on same-sex marriage. And a group decided not to file a report on where $2 million had come from. Their fine was $50,000. That’s 2.5 percent. So, we've increased the penalty to 100 percent of the expenditure in the most egregious cases. If you’re going to come into Maine and spend $2 million to influence our politics, and not disclose the source, you’re going to pay another $2 million for the problems you’ve created. Those were the three pillars of the 2015 initiative: strengthened clean elections, increasing disclosure of who’s contributing to campaigns, and increased fines and penalties for violating our laws.
Does Maine’s experience have much relevance for the broader push to pass campaign finance reform and overturn Citizens United?
What we’re facing is a growing crisis in confidence that our institutions can really benefit us all, that they work for all of us. People feel like the deck is stacked against them. And there’s a lot of cynicism out there. But what we’ve found, here in Maine, is that when you can connect with people about the issues that they care about—taxation, health care, the environment, reducing government waste—and you ask them what the problem is, they’ll say that they don’t think their government works for them. And there’s a lot of evidence that shows they’re kind of right.
But not entirely. And the way we turn that cynicism, and that apathy, about our elections and government around, is by showing people that if we stand up through collective action, we actually can push back against the special interests. That we still have our vote. And that when we come together, we can have the more fair, just and equitable society that we want. I think every one of these efforts that wins, despite coming up against big money and special interests, breaks through that cynicism a little bit more. People ask me, “What’s your number one obstacle? Is it Citizens United?” I say, “No, it’s our inability to believe in ourselves. Cynicism is the No. 1 obstacle.” But if you can get beyond that and break it down, almost anything is possible. People want what Maine has, and they deserve it. We deserve to have a government that works for us.
What are your priorities now?
I like to say that democracy isn’t a noun; it’s a verb. It’s something we have to constantly do. And the second we’re not vigilant in pushing for what’s right, that’s when we lose democracy. So, we have some funding battles that we have to fight around full funding of clean elections. And Maine just passed an important law around ranked-choice voting, so there’s more work to do there. And, on the longer horizon, I think … no one is saying that there’s too little money in politics, and Congress is getting too much done. So, we need a federal system of public financing that works for all of us, and isn’t bought and paid for by the highest bidder.
Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.