In 2013, near the end of my 10-year stint as a Maine legislator, we adopted a Joint Resolution condemning the unregulated excesses of campaign spending that were unleashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. The resolution urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to reverse that ruling, and to allow for campaign spending limits.

Maine had just been through a 2012 U.S. Senate race with total spending of over $11 million, including $7.4 million by political action committees and other independent groups. We thought that political spending was out of control. Our resolution, SP 548, was adopted with broad bipartisan majorities in both the Maine House and Maine Senate. How quaint by today’s standards.

Fast forward eight years to a contentious 2020 U.S. Senate race in Maine with wildly unleashed total spending of $185 million, including over $100 million by political action committees, super PACs and other independent groups. That sum is roughly equivalent to the combined Maine state income taxes paid by two-thirds of all Maine residents filing tax returns, excluding those with the highest incomes. It is an obscene amount of money.

And for what? The large majority of that $185 million was spent on distortionary propaganda and negative advertising that practically nobody wanted to see, practically nobody fully believed and practically nobody found useful in informing their vote.

Fast forward another year, to November 2021, and what had already happened in candidate campaigns spilled over into citizen referendums, but with an additional distasteful wrinkle. The wrinkle? For state ballot questions, campaign spending can also be done legally by foreign corporations, foreign governments and corporations owned by foreign governments.

The 2021 Central Maine Power corridor referendum surpassed all previous records for money spent in any referendum election in Maine history nearly 10 times over. Moreover, the “no” side, which vastly outspent referendum supporters, was indeed funded primarily by foreign corporations and by corporations owned solely by foreign governments.

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Having watched this campaign unfold, I read with interest last month the opening question in one of the New York Times’ morning newsletters. It asked: “If you were a foreign leader hostile to the United States – sitting in, say, Moscow or Beijing – how would you view the U.S. today?” I naturally extrapolated that question to what is already happening in referendum campaigns in Maine, and the problem seems all the more obvious.

We do not want Moscow, Beijing or any foreign government messing with citizen-initiated referendum elections in our state or any state. It is ridiculous that we allow this now.

In theory, federal law prohibits campaign contributions by foreign governments in candidate elections. But the Federal Election Commission claims no authority to regulate foreign government spending on state ballot initiatives. This, in my view, is a blatant and egregious loophole in federal law that can be addressed in state law.

The monstrosity of money in politics, the increasingly dark money in politics and now even foreign government money in politics have ballooned not just to a grotesque level, but also a level that literally threatens the American experiment that has defined our country since its formation.

While Maine voters cannot fix the whole problem, we can address this last issue: foreign government spending on Maine ballot questions.

Petitions are now circulating for a citizen initiative that would close the loopholes that leave our referendum system vulnerable to abuse from foreign governments looking to advance their agenda inside Maine. I encourage you to visit the Protect Maine Elections website, sign the petition and volunteer as you are able.

How ironic will it be if, or more likely when, foreign governments start spending money on a referendum to protect their right to spend money on a referendum? This is a practice that needs to stop, and the Protect Maine Elections initiative is how we can stop it.


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