May 29, 2020
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Keep elections clean — fully fund public campaign financing program

I agree with the Bangor Daily News’ editorial view of the value of Maine’s Clean Election system in legislative races. In the seven election cycles since its inception, the system has proved itself to be good for women, good for candidate recruitment, good for competition, good for candidates from all parties and good for democracy.

However, I couldn’t disagree more with the paper’s repeated opposition to Clean Elections in races for governor.

In Maine, voters elect just one statewide office. Our governor is the most powerful elected official in Maine, with significant discretion over the implementation and administration of enacted law, not to mention the power of the veto.

If separating private special interest money from our highest public official is not a worthy goal for Clean Elections, then I don’t know what is.

The budget compromise now moving forward severely underfunds Clean Elections for legislative candidates and suspends the program entirely for gubernatorial candidates in 2014. Maine people are the losers. Cutting Clean Elections at a time when concern about the influence of moneyed interests on elections and government is at an all-time high is short-sighted in the extreme.

Just as the full force of the big-money regime unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United is beginning to unfold, we in Maine are taking the backward step of forcing all gubernatorial candidates into that corrupt system — no choice. We should be moving forward, not falling back.

To make matters worse, the 2014 race for governor will be run under campaign contribution limits that are triple the limit of $500 that Maine voters approved in 1996. After 10 years, the Legislature raised it to $750. One year later, Gov. Paul LePage and legislative allies pulled an 11th-hour stunt to double the limit in the final days of that legislative session. Today donors may give $1,500 in the primary and another $1,500 for the general election.

LePage is the only announced candidate for 2014 who has filed campaign reports, and he has taken advantage of the higher limit. As of Jan. 15, he had raised more than $200,000. Thirty-seven percent of his donors have already maxed out, and two-thirds of those have come from corporate interests or corporate executives.

With all gubernatorial candidates forced into the private money system, fundraising will consume countless hours of candidate and staff time; the cost of campaigns will inflate with the cost of sophisticated fundraising operations; and relatively few Maine voters will participate as donors, especially at the maximum level.

And after the election? Once in office, policy makers are vastly more attentive to the interests of their affluent donors than they are to those of everyone else. Research shows that affluent donors generally get what they want. If we allow big money to dominate elections we can expect public policy that benefits the donor class while failing to serve the needs of the vast majority of our citizens.

With so much at stake, why would anyone think that we can’t afford a robust Clean Elections program for both legislative and gubernatorial candidates? Fully funding such a system would cost Mainers less than $2 apiece each year. It would be worth every dime to have elected officials who are accountable to all the people, not just their affluent corporate donors. Out of a $6.3 billion dollar budget, a fully funded Clean Elections program represents just .001 percent of the total — a tiny investment with a huge payoff for democracy.

And Maine people know it. Support for the law has grown from 56.1 percent when it passed at the polls to 80 percent today, according to current polling. Each and every time they have been asked about whether candidates for governor ought to be able to use Clean Elections, voters have answered with a resounding, “Yes!”

Forcing every candidate for our most powerful elected office into a big-dollar fundraising enterprise is bad for democracy. And it’s exactly the opposite of what Maine voters want.

Ann Luther lives in Trenton and serves on the board of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

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