Raise the bar for Clean Elections

Maine Sunday Telegram

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Was Maine's Clean Election Fund become too popular for its own good?

Maybe not yet. But the number of gubernatorial candidates who are signing up for public funding signals that a review of the qualification system might be in order.

Three of the six challengers to Gov. Baldacci - Republican primary winner Chandler Woodcock, Green Independent Patricia LaMarche and independent Barbara Merrill - are running taxpayer-funded campaigns. A fourth, independent John Michael, may also make the list.

Candidates qualify for Clean Election funding by collecting 2,500 individual $5 contributions. Once qualified, each gubernatorial candidate receives $200,000 for a primary and $400,000 for the general election campaign.

Each could get up to $800,000 more in "matching funds," should a privately funded candidate like Baldacci hit the campaign contribution jackpot.

Potentially, each publicly funded candidate could get up to $1.4 million for the general election campaign.

The Clean Election Fund was intended to give legitimate candidates an opportunity to run a campaign free from the compromising influence of private funding.

The danger with the current system is that the threshold of 2,500 individual donations provides an opportunity for people who are not genuinely competitive to use taxpayer money to mount their soapbox.

To be clear, we're not talking about making it more difficult for independents and third-party candidates to run for office. However, to qualify for public financing, they ought to be required to demonstrate their bona fides.

This is about the stewardship of scarce public dollars to ensure the longevity of a campaign-financing program that has become a national model.

What's the appropriate standard? That's hard to say.

One approach might be to peg the threshold to a percentage of Maine's registered voters, which number just over 1 million.

A second might be similar to the ballot-initiative process, which sets its signature requirements based on the turnout for the last gubernatorial election to make the ballot.

Half a million Mainers voted for governor in 2002. Initiative supporters need to get 10 percent of that number as signatures, clearly too high a standard for Clean Election candidates, but a lower percentage could make sense.

Five thousand individual donations might not be a bad place to start.

Mainers should be proud that our Clean Election system has become a national model. It's in the state's interest to see that the taxpayer dollars the program relies on are wisely used.