Maine is struggling with hard economic times, and its elected leaders need to make tough choices about how to build the state’s economy, protect its natural resources and educate its children. Should its politicians take their cues from ordinary Mainers, or from rich out-of-state donors?
The Pine Tree State was once a leader in limiting the influence of wealthy funders in politics. The 1996 Maine Clean Elections Act established a voluntary but comprehensive publicly financed campaign system that encourages candidates to rely on large numbers of small donations from ordinary Mainers, rather than big checks from wealthy interests. At its peak, about 80 percent of legislative candidates ran under that system. This year, it’s down to half. Meanwhile, in just four weeks this summer, the candidates for governor received over $200,000 from out-of-state donors giving $1,000 or more.
Something needs to change.
Maine’s efforts to clean up its politics have been hobbled by a series of Supreme Court decisions that have crippled the public’s ability to control the influence of money in our politics. In 1976, the Supreme Court committed its original sin by saying that political dollars count as “speech” under the First Amendment. That was bad enough. But in 2006, the Court struck down Vermont’s state campaign contribution limits on the theory that they were “too low.” Then in 2010, the Court’s infamous Citizens United decision held that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money in federal elections. As if that weren’t enough, in 2011 the Court struck down a key provision of Arizona’s Clean Elections Act (similar to Maine’s) allowing publicly funded candidates to stand a fair chance against self-funded millionaires. And this year, the McCutcheon decision said that ultra-rich donors — the kind of people who are not satisfied with writing a $120,000 check to politicians — have a constitutional right to give up to $3.5 million to federal politicians.
Mainers want to fix this system. In May 2013, the Maine Legislature voted overwhelmingly for a resolution calling on Maine’s congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment on campaign finance. The final, bipartisan vote was 111-31 in the House, with 25 Republicans and four independents joining 82 Democrats, and 25-9 in the Senate, with 5 Republicans joining 1 independent and 19 Democrats.
This fall, a solid majority of the U.S. Senate voted for a bill that would restore the First Amendment by allowing Congress and state and local governments to “set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.” That shouldn’t be an issue of Democrats versus Republicans. A vast majority of Americans from both parties support reining in the big money in politics. In the words of Maine state Sen. Edward Youngblood, R-Brewer, as he wrote in a recent BDN OpEd, “The only people I should ever owe any favors are my constituents” — not big funders.
So how did Maine’s senators vote on the amendment? Sen. Angus King voted for the amendment, but Sen. Susan Collins voted against it. She’s been a supporter of campaign finance reform in the past. But her vote on the amendment bill was out of step with Mainers.
When this issue comes before Congress again, Maine’s senators and representatives should take to heart the growing consensus that our system is rigged in favor of those who can pay. This isn’t about Democrats, Republicans, or the political fights of today. This is about reclaiming our democracy for ourselves and our country’s future.
Ron Fein is the legal director of Free Speech For People, a national nonpartisan nonprofit organization that engages in legal advocacy to confront the misuse of the U.S. Constitution.