Big Money’s Influence On Maine Elections – Part Two
For the first time ever in Maine’s legislative elections, outside groups spent more than candidates themselves in the 2012 races.With Maine’s Clean Elections system on life support, some are worried voters will be hearing more from outside interest groups rather than the candidates themselves.Maine voters enacted the Clean Election System in 1996. It allots state money for candidates who collect a certain number of $5 donations from their constituents. For a House candidate they need 60 donations, Senate candidates need 175. “Basically they can’t take money from special interests to run their campaign or wealthy people,” Andrew Bossie, the head of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. “The idea is to have voter-based elections that are based on hard work and ideas, not fundraising. It’s not about who can get the most money from who to run their races.”Maine was the first state to have a statewide public financing option, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck a critical blow to Maine’s Clean Elections system by eliminating matching funds. “When that got struck down by the supreme court the legislature here had a responsibility to ensure, as the voters wished back in 1996 when they passed this, that clean elections stay a viable option for all types of candidates,” Bossie said. “But instead of taking action to replace the matching funds component of our law, they did nothing.”Without matching funds, clean candidates have no way to respond when big money is poured into their race.But political science experts like James Melcher say clean elections was never going to get the money out of politics. “Money is like water. It finds a way to run into things,” Melcher said.If the clean elections system goes by the wayside it could change the complexion of Maine’s citizen legislature and the notion that anyone can run. “I think it would change the demographics of who runs,” Melcher said. “I think you’d see it being run more like the New Hampshire legislature is, where you’d have a lot more retirees running. A lot of people are going to go out and say, ‘I don’t have time to go out and fund raise the way I have to do on these types of things.’”Which opens the door to big money. Most of the outside money spent on Maine’s elections goes toward negative ads. “Negative ads can, in fact, be very effective. It depends on the campaign. Especially if someone is not well known and that really defines who they are.”Negative ads often times breed misinformation. Melcher says part of the responsibility of keeping candidates honest falls on us in the media as well as the campaigns. Often times the money is poured into a particular race at the last minute, leaving campaigns very little time to refute the misinformation. In that case, the onus is on the media. “If your TV station is taking money from running ads like this, I think there’s almost a fiduciary responsibility for a television station to check some of those things out,” Melcher said.Negative ads by nature go against the spirit of Maine’s Clean Elections system, which values the candidate’s message over slandering an opponent. It’s a system Andrew Bossie and the folks at Maine Citizens for Clean Elections are not letting go without a fight. A new bill making its way through the legislature would help make up for the loss of matching funds by allowing candidates to collect additional $5 donations qualifying them for more funds to help keep them competitive in races where there’s high spending. “We have to fight back, because it’s our democracy that’s at stake,” Bossie said. “Maine people enacted the clean elections system because they want to be in control, they want voters in control of elections. We want to make elections about contact with voters and good ideas and personal qualities of the candidates, not about who can fundraise the most amount of money to win their race.”Part of Governor LePage’s two-year budget proposal would take around $4 million out of Maine’s Clean Election system.If that measure passes, it would mean the end of clean elections in Maine.