June 21, 2018
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Clean Elections Get Dirty

A flurry of increasingly nasty campaign mailings and ads has left voters confused and has wasted taxpayer money. This is a tragedy when the state faces real problems that require strong leadership, cooperation and fresh ideas.

This year, an unprecedented amount of money has been spent on legislative races in Maine. In the last week before Nov. 2, more than $400,000 is expected to be spent on five state Senate races, including ones in Bangor and Hancock and Waldo counties. This money is largely paying for the avalanche of fliers and television that both voters and candidates have decried.

These advertisements, most of which are paid for by the state Democratic and Republican parties (which, in turn, get money from other groups, both in and out of state), have frustrated many candidates because they say the ads confuse voters. Are they voting for a candidate and her ideas or a statewide or national political platform? While candidates are busy talking about issues such as job creation, farming and school funding, the fliers have focused on party positions. For the GOP that is the mantra that taxes are bad. For the Democratic Party — which also has a problem spelling opposing candidates’ names correctly — it is that Republicans waste money and have the wrong priorities.

Candidates, by law, cannot coordinate with these party and political action committee advertising campaigns.

But while many candidates have complained privately that they disagree with the fliers sent and ads aired on their behalf, none have stood up to these groups. Although they can’t “coordinate,” they can publicly condemn. If a candidate is truly outraged by these tactics, he could hold a press conference to condemn them. If many candidates did this, it would send a strong message.

Even worse, the amount of money spent this year and the attacks it has funded make a mockery of the state’s Clean Election system, which allows candidates to get money from the state if they do not accept campaign donations. Ask any voter if the fliers cramming their mailboxes are “clean” and they’ll laugh — or worse.

A candidate can now accept public funding for his campaign while his party or other political action committees can spend unlimited amounts of money supporting that candidate, or more likely attacking his opponent.

To add insult to injury, all this outside money often triggers what are called matching funds. If an outside group spends money on a mailer, the other candidate in the race gets an equal amount of money to spend on his campaign. Although matching funds are capped — at just over $38,000 for state Senate candidates and about $8,300 for House candidates — a lot of taxpayer money is wasted funding these dirty campaigns.

In the five hotly contested state races, the candidates are publicly funded and several have reached their matching maximum. This means state taxpayers could pay more than $114,000 (each candidate’s original disbursement of a little more than $19,000 plus, $38,000 each in matching funds) in each of these races.

This isn’t what supporters of Clean Elections sought when they passed this law.

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