AUGUSTA, Maine — The group campaigning for an election finance reform initiative on the November ballot brought a leading national proponent of publicly funded elections through Maine on Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, said he came to Maine for two roundtable discussions because he sees Maine as a leader on campaign finance laws and an example for other states — and perhaps the nation — to follow.
“What Maine has done with its clean election system is build something real,” Sarbanes said Wednesday in an interview with the Bangor Daily News. “Its value is that it’s something that people can see and can touch.”
Sarbanes is the primary sponsor of the Government by the People Act of 2015, a congressional bill that would create a pilot program for publicly financed election systems by, among other things, giving donors partial tax credits for their political donations and matching those donations with public dollars on a 6-1 basis. That means a $150 donation would be worth a total of $1,050 to a candidate who opts to participate and accept only donations of $150 or less. Sarbanes estimated that the program would cost the federal government an average of $500 million a year for the first decade.
In a divisive political climate in which most candidacies are financed with private donations, Sarbanes has a tough hill to climb toward passing the bill — the website govtrack.us gives it a “0 percent chance of being enacted” — but he insists that momentum is building and a tipping point is near.
Maine’s ‘clean election’ system
Maine voters enacted the Maine Clean Election Act after it was placed on the state ballot by citizen petition in 1996. It allows candidates to fund most of their campaigns with public dollars from the Maine Clean Election Fund. The only private contributions that clean election candidates can collect are $5 qualifying contributions — a minimum of 60 for House candidates, 175 for Senate candidates and 3,250 for gubernatorial candidates — which go directly to the Maine Clean Election Fund. Clean election candidates can also raise “seed money” contributions of up to $100, with a limit of $500 for House candidates and $1,500 for Senate candidates.
In years past, the system was meant to level the playing field between publicly and privately funded candidates. It did so by providing matching funds to candidates to counteract spending by their opponents, though funding for the system was cut in in 2014 and this year, effectively eliminating the program for gubernatorial candidates. The matching funds provision was struck down with a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Proponents of public election funding crafted the changes proposed by Question 1 on the Nov. 3 ballot in response to holes punched in the Maine Clean Election Act by court rulings against matching fund provisions.
The majority of Maine legislative candidates have used the public funding since it was offered. According to data from the Maine Ethics Commission, which oversees the program, participation started at 33 percent of all candidates in 2000 and peaked at 81 percent participation during the 2006 and 2008 elections. Since then, it has dropped to 77 percent in 2010 and 63 percent in 2012. In 2014, participation was down to 51 percent.
The system has been used by candidates of both parties, though not so much recently. After years of bipartisan participation, Republicans began abandoning public campaign financing in recent elections. In 2014, only 32 of 149 Republican House candidates — about 21 percent — participated in the publicly financed system, down from 41 percent two years earlier.
Public financing amounts have not kept up with the cost of some campaigns in Maine. Under current law, publicly financed House candidates receive $4,724 for general elections while Senate candidates receive $21,749. Private spending by outside groups intent on winning partisan legislative majorities has dwarfed those amounts in recent years.
In 2012, for example, the campaign for a Bangor-area Senate seat set a record by attracting $450,000 in outside spending. That occurred during the first Maine legislative campaigns after the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, which led to a major influx of special interest cash in elections nationwide.
Maine isn’t alone, but it’s a shrinking group. There have been forms of publicly financed election systems in Arizona, Connecticut, North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, as well as in various municipalities across the country. Some have been repealed or struck down by the courts.
What about Maine’s Question 1?
Written and supported by a group called Mainers for Accountable Elections, Question 1 proposes a range of campaign finance reforms, including increasing public funding for candidates, requiring special interest groups to list their top three donors on all political ads; ramping up penalties for violating campaign finance laws, and implementing new funding levels for clean election candidates. The referendum also calls for the Legislature to find and cut some $6 million in corporate tax breaks to help finance the proposed changes.
The initiative is likely to find opposition, especially among Republicans. Since the election of Gov. Paul LePage and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, among others at the national and state level, some in the Republican Party have embraced libertarian ideals that include less government involvement in many facets of life, including elections.
“They don’t want this government money to run their campaign,” Republican House Minority Leader Ken Fredette said to the BDN last year. “It’s the philosophy that government shouldn’t provide money for me to run for office. I should raise that money myself if I want to be a candidate.”
As Maine goes …
Why is a representative from Maryland stumping in Maine? Sarbanes, who said he is the only congressional representative in the country to refuse money from political action committees for the past five years, said despite political gridlock and strong opposition from most Republicans, he sees publicly financed elections as only a matter of time. Why? Because he sees the Government by the People Act as a power-based reform rather than a rules-based reform. What he means by that is that instead of trying to limit donations from corporations and special interests, his legislation puts power into the hands of individuals by encouraging small donations that are matched 6-1 by public dollars.
“If the public is the one you’re dependent on, when it comes time to vote, you’ll lean in their direction,” said Sarbanes. “Right now, we’re focused too much on the big money. Candidates will go to raise their money where money can be raised. That’s a simple law of physics.”
Sarbanes said he sees voter support for public financing gaining steam. Though prospects for public campaign financing advances might look grim now, he points to rapid changes in public attitudes toward same-sex marriage as an example of how quickly consensus can build.
“There’s a steady drumbeat which I think will become real momentum,” he said. “This has cross-partisan appeal. … It’s not based on one camp or the other. That makes me hopeful that when that moment of opportunity comes, we’ll be ready. In politics, you get your window and you’ve got to move fast. When that window presents itself, we’ll be ready to move fast and take advantage of it.”
The time might be right
It’s no coincidence that this campaign funding reform question will appear on an off-year ballot, without competition from high-profile races or ballot questions likely to attract a heavy influx of outside spending for ads and campaign staff. The only other two questions on the state ballot are bonds. There are also two special elections in the Sanford and Standish areas to fill vacant House seats.
The biggest local contests will be mayoral races in Portland, Lewiston and Auburn, which are places where progressive voters more likely to support public financing will be voting.
That scenario favors passage of Question 1, because without other ballot items likely to draw voters to the polls — or significant public opposition to the proposal — Mainers who cast ballots in likely a low turnout will be those motivated to support the question.
The Citizens United decision and funding cuts in Maine’s Clean Election system have created momentum against publicly financed election systems at the state and local level, a tide which supporters of Question 1 are hoping to turn. Watching for the emergence of organized opposition — and who pays for it — will tell much about whether that momentum will continue.
Correction: A previous version of this report requires clarification. Clean election candidates can also raise “seed money” contributions of up to $100, with a limit of $500 for House candidates and $1,500 for Senate candidates.