As someone who has spent decades working to empower voters and strengthen democracy, I was thrilled that the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) passed in the House last week. It’ll make elections across the country more like Maine’s: voter-friendly, inclusive and secure. Many provisions such as Election Day registration, have been used successfully here for decades and are popular all over the state and across the political spectrum.

In addition to taking big steps to ensure the freedom to vote for every eligible American, the For the People Act moves toward that most elusive goal – getting big money out of politics.

Taking another cue from Maine, the act includes a voluntary small-donor matching system for congressional candidates, a provision that would turn current fundraising upside down. Instead of soliciting large contributions from wealthy donors and Washington insiders, candidates would reach out to people in their own districts – the same people they seek to represent – and ask for small donations. Only these contributions would be matched, thus making your contribution or mine worth six times more than the same contribution from, say, a K Street lobbyist, a Koch brother, or a Hollywood actor.

A campaign finance system based on small donations is good for voters. Just as the Maine Clean Election Act has kept voters at the center of Maine’s legislative elections, so the For the People Act will do for congressional races. It is the strength of grassroots support that will determine how much funding is available to candidates. Not a handful of wealthy donors, political action committees, super PACs, dark-money groups or corporations. To run competitive races, candidates will have to appeal to many, many voters. That’ll keep the focus right where it needs to be.

A small-donor matching program will be great for representation, too. As we’ve seen in Maine, public funding opens the door to a broad range of people including many who may never before have considered running. Too often well-qualified folks don’t consider it because they can’t afford to fund a campaign and are reluctant to do what is needed to raise the significant funds. In each election cycle, tens of thousands of Maine voters make tiny contributions to Clean Election candidates to leverage the public funds that allow our representatives to serve with no strings attached to private money. More people from diverse backgrounds can run, and voters are represented by folks who are more in tune with issues faced in their communities.

A small-donor matching program is also good for legislating. Lobbyists play an enormous role both in Augusta and in Washington, D.C., and not just by representing clients in capitol buildings. They also are at the top of every donor list. But every member who runs using small-donor funding will serve knowing they will never have to solicit money from lobbyists, a very different relationship.

Back in 2000, when the Clean Election program was brand new, I interviewed many participants about their experiences. One first-time candidate relished telling me about attending a reception hosted by his caucus. He figured it would be a good place to meet people and get to know caucus staff, fellow candidates, and others involved with the election and Legislature. He immediately realized that most of those working the room were lobbyists. One approached this candidate, took one look at his name tag and said, “You are using Clean Elections, aren’t you?” The candidate confirmed this, and the lobbyist promptly left to find someone with whom he could have a more productive conversation. With a hearty laugh, this candidate told me, “Right then and there I knew using Clean Elections was the right decision!”

What better way to break the stranglehold of big moneyed interests and allow Congress to meet the needs of the people who sent them to Washington?

For 20 years, Clean Elections has given so many Maine people the opportunity to run, to be competitive, and to serve. It’s been good for democracy.

Now we have a chance to reap similar benefits for the whole country through a small-donor matching program for congressional races. Is it a silver bullet that will solve all the ills of our money-soaked elections? No. But it’s an important step that will make a big difference in who runs, who wins, and whose interests are represented in Congress. And, according to a provision in the For the People Act, it’ll be paid for by wealthy tax cheats and corporate lawbreakers.

Thank you to Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree for supporting the For the People Act. I encourage Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to do the same.


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