November 13, 2012

Political spending triggers backlash for Mainers

Concern about the influence of anonymous contributors has some pushing for legal remedies that others oppose.

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND - Sally Davis was one of many voters who felt overwhelmed by all the expensive political advertisements leading up to Tuesday's election.

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Anthony Corrado, well known expert on the subject of campaign finance in his office at Colby College in Waterville Tuesday, July 24, 2012.

So, Davis, a 53-year-old musician and teacher, stood outside the polls on Election Day and asked neighbors to help do something about it -- amend the U.S. Constitution, to be exact.

"I think we're just tired of so much money being wasted," Davis said. "Our representatives are not really representing us, they are representing major corporate interests."

The 2012 election season shattered records for political spending in Maine and across the country. Final totals won't be known for a while, but an estimated $6 billion was spent nationwide, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit that tracks campaign finance reports.

The flood of cash is fueling momentum to clamp down on money in politics, from state and federal legislation to a constitutional amendment that says freedom of speech should not include unlimited, anonymous political spending.

Real change is far from a sure thing, however.

Reforms have repeatedly stalled in the hyper-partisan Congress, where efforts to regulate political speech are usually seen as favoring one party over another. Amending the U.S. Constitution, meanwhile, is a monumental task that requires approval from three-fourths of the states.

"It's very clear there is wide popular support for doing something about the campaign finance system and the amount of money in that system. The difficult thing is finding some consensus about what should be done," said Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College in Waterville.

Davis was one of 200 volunteers who stood outside polling places around the state on Election Day, collecting signatures on small postcards that call for the Maine Legislature to formally support a constitutional amendment. Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the group that organized the effort, collected more than 10,000 postcards, its director said.

The effort is aimed at overturning recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that effectively removed state and federal restrictions on political spending by outside groups such as so-called super PACs, non-profit organizations, corporations and labor unions.

While previous Supreme Courts ruled that such spending could be regulated to prevent corruption in politics, the current Supreme Court's rulings say the greater danger is government restrictions on speech, including political speech.

"There's a difference between paid political speech and free speech," said Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. Political speech is now a freedom that belongs only to the very wealthy, he said.

"We talked to a lot of voters on Election Day and people are disgusted by the amount of money spent by outside groups to try to sway elections," he said. "We don't have enough money to pay for the important priorities of today, but we have this money to spend on elections."

The presidential election will far exceed $2 billion -- easily a record -- when all the counting is done.

Even spending in the battle for control of the Maine Legislature -- more than $3.4 million -- shattered the record set two years ago -- $1.5 million.

Maine's U.S. Senate race totaled more than $11 million in total spending by the candidates and outside groups. And the result -- Angus King winning with 53 percent -- was exactly where polls said the race stood in June, before the candidates and outside groups launched the advertising war.

Maine's 2012 Senate race did not set a state record -- about $17.5 million was spent in the 2008 Senate race. Nevertheless, it was one of the most expensive in state history despite the face that the race was never really close, with King leading in the polls by a wide margin from start to finish.

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