On Tuesday, Nov. 3, Maine has a choice with consequences for every election to follow. Shall we vote “yes” to strengthen what we started 20 years ago with the Maine Clean Election Act? Or shall we give up now and vote that big money in our politics is inevitable or even desirable?
Question 1 isn’t just a fight to save the Maine Clean Election Act or watch it die; it’s a fight to strengthen democracy of, by and for the people.
In 1996, voters approved the Maine Clean Election Act by a vote of 56 percent to 44 percent. The Maine Clean Election Act provided a new way for ordinary people to participate in politics. Instead of raising thousands of dollars to run for the state Legislature, candidates had to collect a minimum number of $5 checks to qualify for public funding for their campaigns.
Suddenly, anyone could run for office.
If wealthy candidates or special interests spent huge sums of money on a campaign, then, under the Maine Clean Election Act, the clean elections candidates could tap matching funds. Money was no longer a huge advantage, and that meant that more people of all backgrounds — including more women and more young people — could run and win.
Then, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that essentially money is speech. Many people have heard of Citizens United, which allows special interests to spend unlimited amounts of secret or “dark” money on elections without telling anyone who their donors are. Another case in 2011, Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, essentially gutted the Maine Clean Election Act by ruling that it was unconstitutional for clean elections candidates to get matching funds.
That’s why Question 1 is so important. Without matching funds, the Maine Clean Election Act becomes useless in any race that’s viewed as competitive. Who would run “clean” if outside money from special interests has no limits and no match? How can working class people compete or even participate in such a system?
Question 1 would reduce the advantages of outside money by allowing clean elections candidates to qualify for additional funding by collecting more small dollar donations if their opponent spends huge amounts of money.
Question 1 would improve transparency by also requiring campaigns, including outside special interests, to list their top three political donors on their ads, so at least we would know who is behind the candidate.
And Question 1 would improve accountability by increasing the fines and penalties for breaking campaign finance laws. Question 1 would allow the state to fine violators up to 100 percent of what was spent illegally.
If you think that the Maine Clean Election Act if worth defending and strengthening, then you should vote “yes” on Question 1. If you think secret money in politics is a corrupting influence and dangerous to democracy, then you should vote “yes” on Question 1. If you think there should be strict consequences for those who cheat in elections, then you should vote “yes” on Question 1.
Sen. Angus King and former Sen. George Mitchell have endorsed Question 1 because they understand how dangerous the influence of big money on politics has become. They recognize that the power of money in politics threatens to overcome the power of regular people to participate and make a difference.
Almost 20 years ago, Maine decided there was a better way — a cleaner way. We have a choice now. Do we fall in line with the Supreme Court and with wealthy special interests who tell us that money in politics is inevitable or the way it’s supposed to be?
Or do we take a significant next step to take our elections back and restore our democracy of, by and for the people?
Next week, Maine can make history again. We can tell big money that it can’t buy elections. We can help keep elections clean by voting “yes” on Question 1.
Shenna Bellows is the president of Bellows & Company, an advocacy, development and communications consulting firm. She was the 2014 Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate. She resides in Manchester.