Money in politics works like a magnet, pulling power and influence toward well-heeled donors – and away from the average voter – with each television ad, robocall and mailer. Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have struck down limits on campaign contributions by wealthy individuals and corporations, making that magnet all the more powerful.

Maine has an opportunity to shift the poles, however slightly, by bolstering its landmark Clean Election Act. Volunteers from Maine Citizens for Clean Elections will be collecting signatures today at polls throughout the state, hoping to place on the ballot next year an initiative that would allow candidates to focus more on Maine residents, and less on special interests.

PARTICIPATION DOWN

The Clean Election Act was approved by voters in 1996 and put into practice in 2000. For a decade, it was a model for how to conduct publicly funded campaigns, with at its peak more than 80 percent of candidates for the state Legislature collecting the small contributions necessary to qualify for Clean Election funding.

But in 2010, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, ruled that corporations and unions could spend without limit on electioneering as long as they did not coordinate their efforts with a campaign. Then, in 2011, the court struck down a provision in Clean Election law that provided matching funds for qualifying candidates being outspent by privately funded campaigns.

As a result, contributions to political action committees and campaigns themselves skyrocketed, without any way for Clean Election candidates to keep pace. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of legislative candidates who took Clean Election funding dropped from 77 percent to 63 percent. This year, only 51 percent have qualified for public funding.

Meanwhile, big money from corporations, organizations and wealthy individuals is dominating Maine politics, from the governor’s race to local legislative contests. A recent report by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections found that the number of donations of $500 or more in the governor’s race nearly tripled between 2010 and 2014. Four years ago, those donations made up just 20 percent of the total given to gubernatorial candidates. This year, they accounted for more than 60 percent of the total, as of the Oct. 21 campaign finance filing deadline.

In addition, outside spending in the governor’s race – by political action committees, party committees and others – has grown from a total of $4 million in the entire 2010 race to $11.5 million by Oct. 21. And it’s not just the big-ticket races that are being targeted by outside groups. In just one race, for state Senate District 32, outside groups spent more than $400,000 in 2012. In total, outside spending on legislative races jumped from $1.5 million in 2010 to more than $3.5 million in 2012, a record that was eclipsed this year.

That doesn’t leave candidates much choice but to sidle up to special interests, and it doesn’t leave much room for the voter without a few hundred dollars to contribute.

NEW INITIATIVE

The latest Clean Election initiative, however, would help. It calls for fully funding the Clean Election law – using money saved from closing corporate tax loopholes – so that candidates can remain competitive. It also would require the outside groups purchasing campaign ads to disclose their top donors, so Mainers would know who is spending so much to influence the outcome of elections, and so groups may not be so eager to fund the negative attack ads that now dominate campaigns.

In addition, the initiative would bring more transparency to the funding of gubernatorial transition teams, which now do not require disclosure and have few limits on spending.

The nature of campaign spending is clearly changing. Sign the Clean Election petition today, and help Maine law change with it.