In 1996, Maine voters did something that their elected representatives would not. They created a system of public financing for elections, which reduced the influence of money in politics, made running for the Legislature an option for people of limited means and gave ordinary voters a chance to make a difference in campaigns.
The Clean Election Act is in need of an overhaul, and once again it will be up to the people of Maine and not their elected officials to fix it. Supporters of the law have begun the process of putting up for a vote a citizen-initiated question to modernize and strengthen the act. These changes are necessary, and, just as in 1996, people will not be able to rely on their elected leaders to make them.
The Clean Election Act has been a success on most counts since its introduction in the 2000 election cycle. It didn’t eliminate the influence of big money, but it created an alternative path to office based on organization and communication with voters.
The system is popular with candidates, with almost 80 percent of legislators running with public financing, and with voters, according to annual polling.
But the Clean Election system has taken shots in recent years, and it is not the program that voters enacted 17 years ago.
Most significantly, it has suffered from a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that the law’s matching fund provision, which gave a publicly funded candidate more money when a privately funded opponent outspent him, was an unconstitutional limit on the privately funded candidate’s free speech.
But it also had some problems built in. From the start, lawmakers could run for office as publicly funded candidates while still soliciting private donations for political action committees that they controlled.
And the Supreme Court has ruled that so-called “dark money” can be spent in ways that benefit candidates without having to reveal the donors’ names.
These are changes that the Legislature has not been willing to make over the last two sessions — at times when the House and Senate were controlled by Republicans and then Democrats. In fact, the bipartisan budget just passed raids the Clean Election budget by ending public funding for gubernatorial candidates.
The bill proposed by the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections addresses all these needs, and should spark serious debate both in the Legislature and among the general public over the kind of campaign funding system Maine people want.
Ultimately, it will probably be up to the people who created the Clean Election Act to decide whether it is something that deserves to survive for another generation.