Portland Clean Elections Timeline


Our Story Begins

In the spring of 2019, the League of Women Voters of Maine launches the Fair Elections Portland campaign. We aim to reduce the influence of big money in local campaigns in order to ensure that elected officials represent the interests of voters, not the interests of people and organizations donating to their campaigns, and that the results of municipal elections represent the will of the majority of voters.

After an intense summer of collecting thousands of signers for two petitions, volunteers submit 16,680 signatures to qualify two charter amendments for the 2019 November ballot. The measures include:

  • Establish a public funding system for school board, city council, and mayoral candidates, stemming the tide of big money’s influence and enabling more candidates to run competitive races.
  • Expand Ranked Choice Voting to school board and city council races, ensuring winning candidates represent a true majority of voters.

To qualify each charter amendment for the ballot, a minimum of 6,816 valid signatures from Portland voters are required. The Clean Elections petition garners support from 8,500 signers. This petition seeks a public vote on a local campaign funding program, modeled on the state Clean Elections Act, which was first passed by Maine voters in 1996.

August: The Domino Effect

Our proposal easily qualifies for the November ballot but a divided City Council votes to not place it on the ballot. Just a few days after this vote, Fair Elections Portland declares a lawsuit against the City of Portland. We ask the Court to uphold this fundamental rule that all Mainers have the right to propose changes in local government even when local officials don’t like those changes. The lawsuit comes at a time when Portland is under increasing scrutiny for its approach to elections.

The City still refuses to place the amendment on the ballot and instead orders a public vote on a Charter Commission, which sets off a domino effect. This decision opens a path for potential structural reform, and it grabs the interest of civic groups like Black Lives Matter Portland, Southern Maine Workers Center, Southern Maine DSA, and ACLU Maine.

The news of a Charter Commission vote spreads like wildfire, and the idea is popular among Portlanders.


February: Our Lawsuit Begins

Attorneys representing more than 8,500 petition signers argues in court against the City of Portland’s effort to quash a legally valid petition. The city has argued that the petitioners have no right to challenge the city’s refusal to place the question on the ballot.

The measure would ask Portland voters to mandate a public funding program for local candidates. Fair Elections Portland legal counsel Benjamin Gaines said: “The law here is clear: the constitution gives voters the right to petition for a charter change. Once sufficient signatures are certified, the City has no right to block the measure.”

Among the many arguments presented, the City argues that the issue is moot since Portlanders will now vote on a Charter Commission. We argue that citizens have a constitutional right to alter or amend their municipal charter. Unfortunately, the Court sides with the City's motion to dismiss the case.

We appeal this court's decision and ask the State Supreme Judicial Court to review the case.

July: Voters Choose to Open the Charter

Rather than putting the Clean Elections issue to voters directly, the city chooses to put a Charter Commission on the ballot, which will open up nine seats to be elected by the voters and three appointed by City Council, for a total of 12. This election was originally scheduled for June but was postponed until July 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Portlanders overwhelmingly vote in favor of opening up the Charter, which would not have been possible without the campaign efforts of Black Lives Matter Portland, Southern Maine Workers Center, Southern Maine DSA, ACLU Maine, and many other volunteers.

What started as a quest for public funding to make our elections more accessible has grown into a larger movement. We have people backing government change more than ever. This presents a new opportunity for reform.


February: Our Lawsuit in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court

On behalf of more than 8,500 petition signers, attorneys representing Fair Elections Portland (FEP) presented oral arguments to Maine Supreme Judicial Court in a case challenging the City of Portland’s 2019 decision to block their charter amendment proposal from the ballot.

“This case raises issues going far beyond bringing Clean Elections to Portland campaigns,” said legal counsel John Brautigam. “This case will decide whether or not cherished mechanisms of direct democracy will continue to function in the cities and towns of Maine.”

June: Opinion Given by the Supreme Court

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court decides in June 2021 found that the City had no factual basis in the record for its decision not to follow state law on charter amendments. The Court also found that it saw nothing on the face of the charter amendment proposal that would require a charter commission. The City Council is under a court order to conduct a fact-finding process to show whether the measure alters the “form and structure” of City government.

June: Election of the New Charter Commission

In 2020, Portland voters approved the new Charter Commission, and now in June 2021, voters elect the nine commissioners. Three are appointed by City Council, for a total of 12. The new Charter Commission is charged with reviewing the City Charter and deciding what, if any, changes to recommend. These changes will be presented on the ballot in November 2022.

All nine of the elected commissioners have indicated their support for a municipal Clean Elections public funding system. We look forward to working with the Charter Commission to support the creation of a robust Clean Elections program for municipal candidates.

July: Discussion Phase Begins

The newly elected Charter Commission starts the process of researching, discussing, and deciding what critical reforms are necessary for Portland. Through the end of October, the Charter Commission will work at the committee level. Five committees — Governance, Education, Elections, Departments, and Procedures — will draw up recommended changes to the City Charter to bring before the full Commission. Committee meetings are held biweekly over Zoom, and are open to the public.

The Elections Committee of the Charter Commission considers and discusses Clean Elections.

November: Enough is Enough

In our on-going lawsuit with the City of Portland, Fair Elections Portland asks the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to rule that municipalities cannot arbitrarily block citizen-initiated ballot questions. The previous Portland City Council blocked the ballot question in this case even though the petition satisfied signature thresholds and all other legal requirements.


March: Considering the Proposal

The Charter Commission convenes to consider several important reform proposals, including the Clean Elections concept approved by the Commission’s Elections Committee. This is a great opportunity to stand up for Clean Elections by offering public input.

November: Sent to the Ballot

Charter recommendations are sent to the November ballot for Portland voters to approve, and Clean Elections is listed as Question 3. Question 3 will establish a Clean Elections fund for Portland, ban contributions from corporations and foreign entities, and increase transparency.

Question 3 is endorsed by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the League of Women Voters of Maine, and many current and former elected officials, plus the Portland Press Herald Editorial Board.

With a high voter turnout at 71%, it's incredible that a majority of voters support the measure with 65% voting in favor of Clean Elections. This means that we’re enabling more candidates to run competitive races who won’t have to answer to big donors.

Ballot question:

Shall the Municipality Approve the Charter Modifications Recommended by the Charter Commission Relating to Clean Elections?


January: Our Lawsuit Concludes

Following the successful November 2022 election when voters approved Clean Elections, the Court asks us to prove why this case isn't moot. In the end we got what we wanted, right? First, we argue that our original proposal from 2019 is slightly different from what voters approved in 2022. Second, we argue that the City violated citizens' rights to petition and enact change in their local government, and a Court's ruling in this case could assist the City to better handle administration of future charter modifications.

Unfortunately, after all arguments are presented, the Court determines that the case is moot and is dismissed.

May: Implementation

The Portland City Council votes to establish the Clean Elections program! It was approved by voters in November 2022, but the City Council has to workshop and plan the details for how it will work. The Council adopts the ordinance that closely mirrors the Maine Clean Election Act. This Charter modification goes into effect in time for the November 2023 election, and the modification also includes an ordinance prohibiting foreign contributions.

November: First Election with Clean Elections

With the new program in place, we encourage all candidates for mayor, city council, and school board to run Clean, and Portland voters to donate $5 qualifying contributions to candidates that you support. With strong participation from candidates and citizens, Clean Elections will make our city better and ensure all voters' voices matter!