Members of Portland’s Charter Commission will take up a key election reform proposal this week that would provide public funding to qualifying candidates in city races and limit the amount of private funds candidates can raise.

The commission’s Elections Committee will hold a public meeting Tuesday to discuss a clean elections program, although the proposal will likely change over time as it goes through the process that could put it before voters.

“We’ve heard broad support and enthusiasm for publicly funding elections at public meetings and throughout our campaigns,” said Commissioner Catherine Buxton in a news release. “I am excited to start drafting language that will build a Clean Elections program.”

Maine already has a clean elections program for state offices, but Portland would be the first municipality with one. The discussion comes a few weeks after Fair Elections Portland, a group advocating for a clean elections ballot question, sued the city for a second time over its 2019 decision not to put the issue to a citywide vote and the City Council’s statement of fact that the issue needs to be studied by a charter commission. Voters later approved the creation of a charter commission to study the issue.

The city has said the ongoing legal battle is unnecessary given the charter commission is currently considering a clean elections proposal.

“The City initiated the Charter Commission process expressly for this purpose – to begin to respond to FEP’s expressed desire to include clean elections provisions in the Charter while also ensuring that any changes to that effect were carefully considered and consistent with the rest of the Charter,” the city said when Fair Elections Portland filed its second lawsuit in November.

Advocates say clean elections programs reduce the cost barriers to running for office, and public financing allows candidates to focus on talking to voters instead of fundraising. The cost of a clean elections program in Portland is estimated to be about $200,000 per year, although the exact amount would depend on the details of the program, said Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

Kellar, who also serves as chair of the board of Fair Elections Portland, said that number is in line with norms nationwide and that public funding programs typically cost less than 0.5 percent of a municipality’s budget.

The proposal the committee will look at Tuesday calls on the council to establish a mechanism that would provide sufficient funds to allow candidates for mayor, school board or city council who meet qualifying criteria to conduct competitive campaigns, be voluntary, limit the amount of private funds a candidate could raise, and be available only to candidates who demonstrated public support and agreed to participate in at least one city-sponsored debate or voter education event.

The proposal calls for clean elections funding to be available in time for the 2023 municipal elections and says the program would be administered by paid city staff within an Office of Elections & Voter Engagement, in conjunction with the city clerk and elections officials.

Buxton, in an interview Friday, said the proposal could change before the committee decides whether to move it to the full commission. “We would love to encourage people to come out and share their opinions, their ideas, their support or their critique of this proposal or of clean elections in general,” she said.

The committee will also discuss a proposal to allow universal resident voting, regardless of citizenship status, and will take public comment on both proposals. Earlier this week they discussed a proportional ranked choice voting system for multi-seat elections. In proportional ranked choice voting, winners must meet a threshold of votes proportional to how many seats are up for election.

That proposal is being substantially revised and will be taken up again Dec. 21, the elections committee said in its news release.

Fair Election Portland’s clean elections proposal led to the creation of the current charter commission, which was approved by voters in July 2020. But the scope of the commission’s work has since expanded to include other issues such as the balance of power between the elected mayor and city manager, racial inequities and police oversight.

Committees of the charter commission are currently drafting proposals, which will then be brought to the full commission for approval as recommendations. City residents will have the chance to vote on the commission’s recommendations next year.


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