Enhancing Maine's election laws

Bangor Daily News
John Buell

bangor daily news

Maine citizens should be proud. When other states consider electoral reforms, Maine is cited as an example. Ease of access to polls, Election Day registration, public financing of elections and limits on citizen contributions to privately funded candidates are all part of the mix that reformers praise. In the last two elections, the new public financing system has demonstrated its merits, with 81 percent of the candidates for the Legislature running with public financing. Members of both parties express satisfaction with the system. Nonetheless, our system still needs robust defense and periodic revisions. Maine has a way to go before its electoral turnout can match the levels achieved by some other major industrial democracies. Money - especially as highly concentrated as it has become now - has a way of finding the gaps in any system. In addition, our culture seems to have a love/hate relationship with politics, even democratic politics. Addressing these concerns is vital.

It is ironic that just months after an election in which public campaign finance proved its worth, the GOP is proposing a state budget plan that cuts $1.3 million from the Clean Election Fund. The GOP, of course, is not solely to blame. Angus King started this dangerous precedent by borrowing from the fund during an earlier state budget crisis, funds that subsequent legislatures have failed to fully repay. The coalition Maine Citizens for Clean Elections correctly points out that these cuts jeopardize the future of clean elections. Those of us who value democratic politics must address our concerns about this fiscal shortsightedness to our legislators.

Some conservative pundits treat public campaign financing as "welfare for politicians," or they object that the system forces citizens to subsidize views with which they disagree. Yet many citizens properly value dialogue and debate. Given our corporate media, reaching the public will always cost money and will need to be financed. Without public financing, those who run for office will be largely men and women of wealth or who are willing to do the bidding of wealthy interests. By removing the historic barrier of the need to raise private money, the Clean Election Act has given us legislative races with more candidates from diverse backgrounds and a more representative Legislature.

Maine's electoral system still lacks key reforms to limit corruption of the political process. Unlike other New England states, Maine places no limits on the amount of money a citizen may contribute to a political action committee. PACs can, in turn, contribute to privately financed campaigns and run ads on behalf of preferred candidates. Maine Citizens for Clean Elections is supporting a ban on corporate contributions to PACs, a limit of $1,000 per two-year election cycle on any citizen's contribution to any one PAC, and a limit of $10,000 total that can be contributed by any one donor to all PACs in an electoral cycle. Since such proposals do not apply to issue PACs, committees that address specific issues on a year-round basis, citizens' free-speech rights are not being curbed, only their ability to drown out other voices during the electoral season.

Further PAC reform must address independent expenditure ads which mention a preferred candidate in highly favorable terms or go negative on an opponent. in the two months before an election Under current practice, until the final few weeks of the election, such ads do not trigger matching funds for publicly funded opponents as long as viewers are not instructed to vote for or against the candidate. The Legislature is considering a bill that would rebut the presumption that all such ads are electoral interventions meriting matching funds for the full 60 days before Election Day.

Yet the public has a right to seek reasonable limits even to such worthy expenditures. Some advocates of public financing worry that the current qualifications for financing a race for governor, 2,500 contributions of $5, may be too lax and will allow frivolous candidates to obtain financing. The speaker of the House has proposed upping the contributor requirements to 3,250 and also requiring seed money of $15,000. Though the increase in qualifying contributions may have merit, I am concerned that seed-money requirements might be especially onerous for many third party and independent candidate efforts.

Waste on a frivolous candidate is a legitimate concern, but it must be weighed against the importance of an open process. The public loses much more than a million dollars if new regulations inhibit thoughtful dissent. In order to avoid an ugly Catch-22 in which disdain for politics fuels a parsimonious attitude toward public finance, it is imperative that we maintain a vigorous public finance system.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may contact him at jbuell@acadia.net.