April 19, 2018
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Deconstructing our less-than-clean election

By Hendrik Gideonse, Special to the BDN

The election is over and we’re all tempted to just put it behind us. On the other hand, a number of things happened which aren’t widely known and ought to be because there are important implications for future elections.

The BDN Nov. 3 editorial excoriating Secure Maine Votes for huge advertising purchases made with money not reported to the Ethics Commission was well deserved but the fine imposed by the commission was a joke. And despite the failure to comply with the rules, TV stations ran the ads anyway.

When the fraudulent nature of the ads led me to complain to WABI-TV that they were false, the station told me it asked the sponsors to respond, reported back to me that WABI-TV was satisfied by Secure Maine Votes’ response, but then refused to share the response with me, claiming it was under no obligation to do so.

That’s odd. I thought the airwaves belonged to all of us and that the station would bend over backwards to demonstrate its integrity in fulfilling that trust. Silly me! Obviously the income was more important to the corporation than electoral fair play or accountability to a concerned member of the public.

Clearly I did not endear myself to the officials at WABI-TV. I guess they’re not used to assertive citizens like me demanding corporate responsibility for the station’s use of our public airwaves. They found me, in their words, “accusatory and offensive,” but that doesn’t begin to match my judgment regarding their decision to run the fraudulent ad in the first place and to refuse to share the evidence that persuaded them my claim was invalid.

Finally, when I tried to contact Secure Maine Votes using the phone number listed on their website to complain directly, it turned out to be an unlisted phone number in Fort Kent whose customer had nothing to do with the No on 1 campaign organization. (The website no longer exists; it was taken down before Election Day was over.)

American electoral policy, not just Maine’s, is a shambles, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The shameful amounts of money generated for electoral campaigns, the increasing lack of accountability especially by the bigger and more corporate the donors, the minimization of the role of the common person save at the ballot box and the prevalence of lies and innuendos all make one wonder what just plain old citizens like you and me can hope to do to begin to set things right.

Well, we can start right here in Maine. Five specific suggestions:

First, fines for violating election rules should be equal in value to the transgression uncovered; i.e., in the present case, $162,000 for what was spent before it was reported rather than the paltry $3,251 the Maine Ethics Commission levied on Secure Maine Votes.

Second, any time a political campaign is in arrears on reporting dates, no ads should be permitted on any stations until they are in compliance.

Third, mandate sharing with complainants the results of responses to specific challenges of the accuracy of campaign ads.

Fourth, political campaigns found to be publishing inaccurate contact information should be disqualified from the privilege of using public media until valid information is posted.

Fifth, the source and amount of all contributions to campaign organizations should be fully reported daily as received.

If we’re serious about electoral reform, about finally addressing the sleazy and corrosive practices that are spoiling political discourse in this country, then these are beginning steps Maine could take.

A recent story reported in this paper Nov. 3 from our neighbor to the north is instructive about how to hold individuals accountable for their public actions (albeit in a different sector). The instance was the potential consequences for violating environmental regulations resulting in the deaths of lobsters in the wild, but it suggests what can be done if the public and its officials are serious about a matter.

Cooke Aquaculture has been charged with 11 counts of improper pesticide use which could result in $11 million in fines and 33 years in jail. The model is provocative if we really want cleaner elections. Are clean elections less important than clean oceans? That is a question we can decide for ourselves.

Hendrik Gideonse, a resident of Brooklin, has been a student of and active participant in public policy for more than 50 years.

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