Clean voting draws fans

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In another cold remote state 4,000 miles away, people are at wits’ end with their politicians.

Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and his son, former Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens, are under investigation on allegations of corruption. Four state lawmakers were indicted for bribery, extortion and mail fraud.

The public wants change, and they’re looking to Maine for guidance.

They’re not the only ones.

The Maine Clean Elections Act has become a model for a number of states – and even a federal bill – seeking to earmark public funding for elections. This comes after a string of highly publicized campaign funding scandals.

The Maine act, which started in 2000, is a voluntary program of full public financing for gubernatorial and legislative candidates. They start by collecting a certain amount of “seed money,” small private contributions, and then collect a designated number of $5 checks from registered voters.

Candidates then can qualify for matching funds based on an opponent’s expenditures. Maine’s Ethics Commission oversees the process.

Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne said he has fielded calls from Washington, Maryland and Iowa, among others. They want to know how the law works, how candidates qualify, and where the money comes from, Wayne said. Sometimes the calls come from legislators and their staff. Sometimes they come from activist groups.

Connecticut put a similar program in place in 2005, and New Jersey is running a trial program, so both states have called with lots of questions, he said.

“There’s more money in state politics and that’s a rising concern for people inside and outside of government in different states,” Wayne said. “They look to public financing as a possible solution.”

Following Maine

In Alaska, both a citizen initiative and a bipartisan bill are calling for a publicly financed campaign system. A poll showed 70 percent of the public in favor of such a system, said Michelle Sydeman, an aide to Alaskan state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, who has researched the issue.

“The public is upset and ready for change,” Sydeman said. “They see Clean Elections as a way to reduce the potential for corruption and reduce the influence of big money in politics.”

The initiative could make it on the ballot as soon as the 2008 primary election. The bill will be taken up when the Alaska Legislature convenes in January.

Sydeman has spoken with the people who pushed the 1996 Maine act, and compiled information from the Maine Ethics Commission.

“We’ve just taken a lot of inspiration and are happy to be able to use quotes from Maine lawmakers to show people that the system is working,” Sydeman said. “The fact that 84 percent of your current Legislature is made up of people that ran using Clean Elections has been very helpful.”

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Meanwhile, in Washington …

Recent scandals have put the spotlight on campaign fraud in congressional races as well. On June 20 the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration held a public hearing on The Fair Elections Now Act – which resembles Maine’s Clean Elections Act.

The bill is sponsored by U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., assistant majority leader. It is still pending.

Nick Nyhart, president of Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based interest group supporting clean elections, brought up a familiar name during his testimony before the committee.

“This voluntary system has changed the faces of democracy where it has been implemented,” Nyhart said, according to the hearing transcript. “In Maine, for example, Deborah Simpson (D-Auburn), a low-wage worker, a single mom, and a grass-roots civic activist, is now a member of the state Legislature where she pays particular attention to the policies that affect children living in poverty. She credits the Clean Elections system as her successful entry ticket into the political arena.”

Local resistance

Gov. John Baldacci said in a statement Friday that there needs to be a balance between encouraging people to run for office and ensuring that candidates have a certain level of support.

“Clean Elections has gone a long way toward reducing special interest funding in Maine elections and making the process more open to public scrutiny,” Baldacci said. “We must continue to ensure, however, that taxpayer dollars provided to candidates seeking elective office are being spent wisely.”

Durbin’s federal bill does not have any sponsors from Maine. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins opposed the idea in a statement Friday.

“I do not believe that taxpayers should be burdened with paying to fund political campaigns for congressional candidates at a time when we have so many urgent needs in our country such as health care, education, defense, and homeland security,” Collins said. “I believe that taxpayer money is better spent meeting the needs of our young, our elderly and our most vulnerable, and protecting our nation against threats from nature and from those who want to do us harm.”

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe also was wary.

“I have long been an advocate for campaign finance reform, as our current system is far from perfect,” Snowe said in a statement Friday. “For that reason I co-sponsored the bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 and supported efforts to uphold the law when it was challenged in the Supreme Court. At the same time, I have long held concerns about placing taxpayers in the position of having to pay for candidates’ campaigns.”

Friends in high places

Chellie Pingree, who recently resigned from her post as president and CEO of Common Cause to seek a U.S. congressional seat in the 2008 election, said the organization helped with the research for Durbin’s bill.

Attempts in previous years with similar bills in Congress have failed. Pingree said this one is different.

Durbin’s power as assistant majority leader doesn’t hurt either, Pingree said, nor does the fact that it is co-sponsored by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a five-term Republican.

“This is the closest anyone has come to a bill that looks like what we do in Maine,” Pingree said. “I just happen to think that the Maine model, which has obviously been successful and growing in popularity, is the best way to go about doing public financing.”

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