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Remember the Clean Elections Act

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Co-Author: Matthew MacWilliams, President of MacWilliams Sanders Communication

Ninety percent of Americans -- Democrats and Republicans -- think that there is too much corporate money in politics. Everybody knows money talks in Washington. Increasingly, people are looking for solutions to prevent big dollars from being the lead vocalist in Congress, at the White House and in state houses across the country. In a speech on income inequality earlier this month, President Obama addressed the problem head on: "Ordinary folks can't write massive campaign checks or hire high-priced lobbyists and lawyers to secure policies that tilt the playing field in their favor at everyone else's expense." As the national movement to restore democracy gets rolling, reformers must Remember the Maine! and protect state laws like Maine's successful Clean Elections Act.

In 1996, Maine passed the first in the nation clean election law that provided public funds for any state candidate who could raise a set number of $5 donations. For example, if a house candidate raised 65 one-dollar donations she would qualify for $1,559 of public funding for an uncontested race and $4,724 for a contested race. The law gave candidates a meaningful alternative to special-interest money that actually worked. In 2000 when the law was enacted, half of Maine's senators and 30 percent of the members of its House were elected without any special interest money. Today, more than 80 percent of the legislature was elected using Clean Elections.

The clean election law made Maine elections unique. "Other state and national elections look more like auctions, where those that can write big campaign checks have more access to elected officials," says Andrew Bossie, the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. Democratic Representative Thomas R.W. Longstaff describes Maine's clean election system as voter focused. It means "candidates can run campaigns that are free of special interest money. Campaigns are focused right where they should be -- on the voters."

Given its success, Maine should stand out as a paragon for the country to follow. Instead, Mainers are fighting to save their clean elections law. In 2011, the Supreme Court imperiled all clean election laws by banning the triggered matching funds that publically funded candidates receive when they are being outspent by a well-heeled opponent. In Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom PAC v. Bennett the Court ruled that the triggered matching funds violated the first amendment. Following precedence set in Buckley v. Valeo, the Court ruled that matching funds placed an undue burden on privately funded candidates who opted not to receive public funding and restricted their right to free speech. In other words, because the Court defines campaign-spending as protected speech, any attempt to even the playing-field is a violation of free speech.

Without matching funds, clean election candidates cannot compete against privately funded candidates or outside groups. According to Republican State Senator Ed Youngblood, "Losing matching funds was a blow. Without them, the Clean Election system is not viable for hotly contested races. It is too easy for private money to come in and dominate the race of an underfunded Clean Election candidate. Predictably, participation in Clean Elections has dropped off because of it."

Now Maine needs to strengthen the existing clean elections law or revert to campaigns that resemble auctions. "That's what's at stake here in Maine," says Bossie. "Do we move forward with reforms to strengthen clean elections and have a government accountable to everyday voters, or do we go backward and allow big money to dominate our elections and consequently our government?"

One option is for Maine to strengthen the law by adding a requalifying option. This would allow clean election candidates to qualifying for additional funds by collecting an additional round of fifty or one hundred $5 donations.

As reformers, politicians and advocates work to channel national frustration about the corrosive power of money on politics into meaningful legislation or a constitutional amendment; they would be wise to Remember the Maine! In order to make progress, we must expand clean election laws in new states to eliminate the influence of money in politics and protect and strengthen existing clean elections laws that are working in states like Maine.