Bipartisanship breaks out over Clean Elections

As the leaves turn and our first snowflakes appear, Maine can pick a rare option at the voting booth. We can embrace a bipartisan effort that furthers the fundamental democratic ideal of having voters’ voices heard, with people in office who will listen to Mainers rather than powerful interests.

Voting for Question 1 is a way of choosing to turn away from the partisanship and skewed priorities that all too often characterize our politics.

It means embracing and improving a system used by both Republicans and Democrats. Rather than needing to go after big dollars from a few people, candidates can better focus on constituents’ voices and needs.

Nearly 20 years ago, Mainers adopted our Clean Elections system. People running for office, after going out to speak to their neighbors and bringing in sufficient numbers of $5 contributions, would unlock public campaign support.

Conversations with constituents that included these small donations have happened with huge percentages of candidates. For instance, in 2010 Maine’s Clean Elections system was used by 94 percent of Republican Senate candidates, 82 percent of Democratic Senate candidates, 68 percent of Republican House candidates and 89 percent of Democratic House candidates.

Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett. Contributed photo.

Maine GOP Chairman Rick Bennett. Contributed photo.

After this system was undermined by the same Supreme Court that issued the Citizens United decision defining corporations’ political giving as the same as individuals’ free speech, now-Maine GOP Chair Rick Bennett argued that something needed to be done to restore it because Clean Elections “has been good for our democracy.”

Bennett explained, “Keeping Clean Elections healthy is important, for we need good people to run, win and serve. And there is another thing we must do to keep Maine’s political culture in tune with the people’s values. We must reduce the influence of corporate money in state elections.”

Noting bipartisan consensus on how democracy should work, Bennett declared, “When corporations fund political campaigns, it’s a business decision, which makes for a loss of the values that are such an important part of our identity. Ultimately, state systems are meant to serve people, not corporations. I think it would be difficult to find a Mainer — liberal, moderate or conservative — who disagrees with that.”

Question 1’s solution to fixing the Supreme Court’s decision includes other powerful elements, beyond the ability for candidates to go back to constituents, thus unlocking additional support.

The reform also emphasizes transparency and accountability. Third-party ads will have to include the names of the top three donors, so we know who is behind them. Campaign violations will be punished far more severely, so that those who break the law don’t just absorb small fines as the cost of doing business.

Moreover, the system improves Maine’s tax system because Question 1 stipulates that financial support comes from closing corporate loopholes.

What’s especially striking is the bipartisan support for the referendum. Of course not everyone agrees this is a good law, and no one can say it will magically make campaigns meet some mythical ideal.

Public statements for this reform have come from people across the aisle, with opposition almost completely from far-right figures like Rep. Larry Lockman, himself a Clean Elections candidate in 2012, and Gov. Paul LePage. These same individuals opposed citizen access to the ballot via Election Day voter registration.

Former state Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer. Contributed photo.

Former state Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer. Contributed photo.

Former Sen. Ed Youngblood, a Republican from Brewer, recently spoke out for Question 1. “There is too much big money in politics,” said Youngblood, a former banker. “I ran as a Clean Election candidate, not because I didn’t think I could raise the money [but rather] because I don’t want to be beholden to anyone, regardless of how small the contribution is.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

A radio debate on the measure didn’t pit a Republican against a Democrat, but involved two Republicans — Rep. Joel Stetkis of Canaan and Rep. Roger Katz of Augusta. Katz explained, “To me it boils down to this…. Who is going to have the power to see who gets elected in the state of Maine, to the Legislature?” Katz supports Question 1 as a way of counteracting the impact of “big money outside of Maine” and instead boosting “ordinary people.”

Mainers have the chance to embrace bipartisanship and demonstrate national leadership on campaign finance reform. Supporting Question 1 strengthens Maine’s civic traditions, equalizing citizens’ voices and making a future where we have greater information and accountability.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.