In January of this year, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections projected that the 2014 gubernatorial and legislative campaigns would be the most expensive in Maine history.

Although fundraising totals will not be available until after the election, it is already clear that our projection was correct. We’re likely to see nearly $30 million in private money spent in Maine state legislative and gubernatorial races this election cycle — double that of 2010. All made possible by legal decisions that open the door to new sources of secret money, increased contribution limits and a decrease in publicly-funded candidates.

Maine voters are now being deluged by robocalls, mailers and television ads from shadowy groups with funding that is often impossible to trace. With this trend toward big-money campaigns on the rise, Maine’s cherished tradition of person-to-person democracy appears to be at risk.

But it hasn’t always been this way in Maine. Since the year 2000, Maine candidates have had a public funding option — the Maine Clean Election Act. Candidates who show support within their district and agree to certain rules may earn a limited amount of public funding for their campaigns.

In recent election cycles, up to 85 percent of candidates participated in this optional system. They did not engage in private fundraising, and their constituents knew that they were not beholden to special interest contributors.

Our groundbreaking Clean Election system is now threatened by an onslaught of private special interest money. Only about half of legislative candidates are currently using Clean Elections; the rest are relying on private money. And a recent analysis shows that the amount of out-of-state money contributed to privately financed gubernatorial candidates as of late September was more than four times the amount raised by candidates seeking the Blaine House during the entire 2010 race.

Meanwhile, independent expenditures are poised to surpass spending by the candidates themselves. This brings with it a steep increase in negative campaigning, a practice that candidates and voters alike find distasteful and disturbing.

The consequences of this trend do not bode well for democracy. It is harder and harder for regular folks to run for office, and difficult for them to get their own message heard when they do. Big spenders get special attention from our elected officials. And our representatives have to spend more time raising money to get re-elected.

Moreover, the public has a strong interest in knowing who is paying for our elections, but that interest is poorly served under current law. It is nearly impossible to know where these campaign funds originate.

Maine Public Broadcasting recently reported that much of the money in Maine elections is “virtually untraceable.” With an alphabet soup of special interest political action committees, party committees, and leadership PACs, it is impossible to follow the money back to an original source, such as a person or business.

Democracy may be inherently messy, but it shouldn’t be for sale to secret buyers. The courts have failed us. Our Legislature has failed us.

We can do better, but we cannot look to our government to fix the problem. We must fix it ourselves.

We are now at an important turning point where our democracy can only be restored by bold action. MCCE is working with hundreds of volunteers to place a citizen initiative on the ballot. This is precisely the type of issue for which the citizen initiative was created — where public demands for reform are thwarted by elected officials with a vested interest in the status quo.

Our Clean Elections Initiative will ensure that public funding for gubernatorial and legislative candidates remains a viable option. It will also enhance disclosure with “real time” listing of funding sources on those ads that fill our mailboxes and airwaves, and require disclosure of fundraising to pay for inauguration parties and transition expenses. Our initiative also establishes a system of tough penalties for violations of campaign laws.

We ask everyone who is weary of expensive elections funded by special interests to join us. We will be circulating petitions at polling places this Tuesday, Election Day. And speak with your friends, family and neighbors about why democracy is important to you.

The people of Maine deserve elected officials who are accountable to us. Everyone should be represented in our democracy — not just the wealthy. We need to keep the power of our government in the hands of the people, and our Clean Elections Initiative will make that possible.

Regardless of party or ideology, our democracy is too important. It is up to Maine people to restore and strengthen our system of self-governance. The next step is up to you.

BJ McCollister grew up in Canton. He current lives in Portland and is the program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.