A few months ago, I applied for an internship with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. I didn’t know much about Clean Elections, but I liked the idea of a nonpartisan nonprofit with a mission to get big money out of politics. I figured I would get some good experience, learn something about elections and campaign finance, and build my resume.
Well, timing is everything, and I could not have embarked on this internship at a more exciting time.
During my months with MCCE, I learned much about Maine’s historic leadership on campaign finance reform, and I got to roll up my sleeves and participate in the truly people-powered movement to restore the voices of Maine people in our elections.
Maine was the first state to pass a Clean Election law — a full public funding system that allows Mainers from all walks of life to run for state office without relying on private donors. Citizens initiated this reform, and voters passed it at the polls in 1996. Clean Elections became so popular that more than 80 percent of candidates at one time used it.
Along came 2011 and a U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that the matching fund provision was unconstitutional. This meant that participating candidates could no longer receive additional funds if a third-party donor attacked or a wealthy opponent outspent them, making their campaign vulnerable. Although a constitutional alternative to matching funds was developed, efforts in two successive Legislatures failed to implement it. Predictably, participation in Clean Elections dropped significantly.
There are other problems, too. The Citizens United v. F.E.C.(2010) Supreme Court decision unleashed unlimited corporate spending in elections, resulting in more third-party groups fueling more negative TV advertising, intrusive phone calls and ugly smear tactics. Many spending records were broken in 2014, thanks to the countless deep-pocketed political groups.
I spoke with many Mainers from across the state who feel pessimistic and powerless against this disease plaguing our elections. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Next year, Maine voters could have the chance to vote on an initiative that would restore the Maine Clean Election Act, disclose dark money and bolster accountability in our elections. Candidates who use the public financing system would be able to compete against deep-pocketed opponents without having to spend all their time raising money.
It’s not just that the Clean Elections initiative is good policy that will improve Maine’s elections. The real light is provided by the enthusiasm, support and incredible hard work of all the folks who are working to qualify the initiative for the ballot.
The high point of my internship was Election Day. For weeks leading up to that day, I and dozens of other poll captains contacted voters all over the state and asked for their help at the polls. Hundreds of volunteers signed up, learned about the citizen initiative process and showed up at the polls with petitions in hand, prepared to ask their neighbors for a signature.
When the polls opened, the real fun began. After casting their ballots, Maine voters stopped for a few minutes to chat about Clean Elections, about money in politics, and most importantly, about putting the power back in the hands of the people. And they signed.
Election Day provided the clearest demonstration that support for Clean Elections is broad and deep. It is across all parties, and the support is overwhelming. Many people were both astonished and happy that someone was doing something about these problems. Most Mainers are not extremists, and they recognized and appreciated that this initiative offers a practical approach to a serious issue.
For me, Election Day solidified my belief in the Clean Elections Initiative. I got to see the faces of the people who want this and believe in it. We often talk about “we the people,” and I got to meet them. I got to see who we are fighting for and who will be affected. People really do care. Mainers are simply not willing to take a back seat to special interests and big money.
This enormous and exhausting Election Day effort was a fantastic experience. We have the chance to change the course of Maine’s history, and I know we can do it. We are empowered, and we are passionate about strengthening our democracy. Now we need to take that enthusiasm and engagement into 2015 and make sure we see this through.
Once again, Maine will lead. And it is a very good feeling to know that I can play an important part.
Harold “Trey” Stewart III is a native of Presque Isle and a third-year student at the University of Maine. He is majoring in political science and sociology, is the president of the General Student Senate and recently completed an internship at Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.