With a growing influx of outside money flowing into political campaigns and lawmakers’ declining interest in Maine’s public campaign financing system, it is easy to see the program as a failure. But, given the strong public support that has persisted, Maine’s landmark public campaign finance law should be given one more chance to succeed.
Lawmakers have failed to do this in recent years, but a proposed ballot initiative offers another opportunity.
In 1996, voters approved Maine’s Clean Election system, which provided candidates a set amount of money for their campaigns after they collect enough $5 seed money contributions to show support for their campaign. Clean Election candidates cannot raise private money for their campaigns. The hope was that public campaign financing would reduce the influence of private money on state politics and allow candidates to focus on issues, not fundraising. A poll two years ago found that 88 percent of those asked thought the system was important.
It worked well for awhile.
At its peak during the 2006 and 2008 election seasons, more than 80 percent of Maine legislative candidates used Clean Election money to fund their campaigns. This fall, that number has dropped to about half. The largest decline came from Republican candidates in the House, of whom just 32 out of 149, or about 21 percent, are publicly financed. That’s down from 41 percent in 2012. House Republican leader Ken Fredette said his party’s candidates don’t believe government should fund campaigns, a recent aversion that happens to coincide with the rise of outside spending.
This year, publicly financed House candidates in Maine receive $4,724 for contested general elections, while Senate candidates receive $21,749. Clean election funding for gubernatorial candidates was a victim of budget cuts last year, though few gubernatorial candidates have used public campaign funds in the past.
There have always been ways around the Clean Election law that have allowed private money to overtake elections with candidates receiving public campaign funds. That has been especially true since 2011.
That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court, through an Arizona case, struck down a provision of Maine’s Clean Election law that gave candidates matching funds if their privately funded opponents or a third-party group supporting them outspent them. In recent elections, outside groups have poured large amounts of money into key state races. Often, the groups are advocating on behalf of candidates who are running as Clean Elections candidates. By introducing such a large amount of private money into what is ostensibly a publicly funded campaign, this defeats the purpose of the public financing system.
In 2012, Nichi Farnham, a Republican incumbent, and Geoff Gratwick, a Democrat, both ran as Clean Elections candidates for a Senate seat in Bangor and Hermon. Their race attracted about $450,000 in spending from outside groups — more than any other legislative campaign in Maine history. So far this year, the race for the same Senate seat — which pits Gratwick against former Bangor Mayor Cary Weston — has attracted more than $200,000 in outside spending, all but about $5,000 of it spent to re-elect Gratwick, a Clean Elections candidate. Candidates cannot coordinate with outside groups, and materials from those groups sometimes contradict the image and message the candidate is trying to send to voters.
Another problem is that “clean” candidates are supported by political action committees, often created by political parties and legislative leaders. These PACs, often run by lawmakers who ran and were elected using the public financing system, have raised millions from private donors and spent that money on behalf of the campaigns of other publicly financed legislative candidates. There are no limits in Maine law on how much anyone can contribute to a political action committee and few limits on how the PAC can spend that money, even it is going to the benefit of Clean Election candidates.
This is not what voters intended in 1996.
As a result, supporters of the public campaign finance system are currently collecting signatures for a referendum question that, if passed, would provide Clean Election candidates with the opportunity to get additional state funding if they collect more qualifying contributions. This would give candidates in hotly contested races the opportunity to get more campaign cash to counter attacks from outside groups and PACs.
More important, the ballot measure would increase disclosure. Campaign television ads and flyers from PACs and outside groups would be required to list the top three donors to the group. It also would increase penalties for violations of state campaign finance laws.
By putting these measures on the ballot, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections can give Maine voters another chance to reaffirm their support of publicly financed campaigns.