When I first ran for elected office in 2000, I was proud to be among the first class of Clean Election candidates. We were a cross-section of Maine people — bankers, farmers, teachers and more — and we pioneered the system that within just a couple of years would become the default campaign finance system for legislative races.
The Clean Election system worked. It reduced the influence of wealthy special interests in government while enhancing the role of everyday Maine people in elections. Unfortunately, today it doesn’t work quite as well as in those early years. That is because an unfriendly U.S. Supreme Court — the same court that brought us Citizens United — decided in an Arizona case that the triggered matching funds that allowed Clean Election candidates to run on a level playing field were unconstitutional.
I have always believed that matching funds were a great boon to First Amendment activity, simply because they provided for more speech from participating candidates who are outspent by a wealthy opponent or a deluge of outside spending. Nevertheless, the court thought otherwise, and so our matching funds were struck down.
Losing matching funds was a blow. Without them, the Clean Election system is not viable for hotly contested races. It is too easy for private money to come in and dominate the race of an underfunded Clean Election candidate. Predictably, participation in Clean Elections has dropped off because of it.
But Maine people don’t give up just because of a setback. And Maine people came up with a sound alternative to matching funds, which would restore Clean Elections to the robust system that voters enacted back in 1996. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill to amend Clean Elections with this new supplemental funding program, but adequate funding was not included in the budget. In 2014, participating legislative candidates will have access to very limited funding, and no candidate for governor will be able to participate in Clean Elections at all.
Fortunately, there is more than one way to make law in Maine, and it is time that citizens once again take the lead. If we are to continue our efforts to reduce the influence of special interest money in our elections and in our government, Maine citizens must take Clean Elections back to Maine voters and ask them to strengthen and restore our citizen-initiated law.
This process began in July, and I am pleased to be one of the six Maine voters who came forward to launch Maine’s second Clean Election initiative.
The new law will strengthen Clean Elections, increase transparency and close loopholes. Going to referendum will allow Maine people to refresh their mandate on Clean Elections. It will send the unmistakable message that we intend to move forward, not backward.
We all want a government that is truly of, by, and for the people. Nothing could be more important — no matter where we fall on the political spectrum — than working toward this goal. Having a campaign finance system that puts people first has many benefits to Maine, and this new legislation is a very positive step. It will enhance the role of small donors, elevate the voices of ordinary Maine people, and provide a bulwark against the ever-increasing involvement of outside interests in our state elections and in the State House.
Campaign finance reform can be a complex undertaking, but it is more important than ever to take on the challenge. For one thing, the U.S. Supreme Court may not be done yet. Next month, the court is scheduled to hear yet another case with the potential to roll back decades of legal protections against corruption in our election system.
Eighteen years ago, Maine led the nation with the passage of the nation’s first full public funding system for state offices. I know that Maine people are up to the task of renewing that system so that future generations will benefit.
Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer, represents District 31 in the Maine Senate.