Maine Pushes for Campaign Finance Reform

Michael Rosenstein (via flickr)
Election booths in Maine, where the Clean Election Option has driven 80 percent of political candidates away from accepting large private donations.

With President Obama and his Republican challengers gearing up to spend millions on their election campaigns, is there any way to defeat organized money? The answer, according to voters in Maine, is organized people. Maine Citizens for Clean Elections is an organization that supports legislation to take private money out of politics. The organization advocates the Maine Clean Election Act, a voluntary, full-public-funding system for candidates for all state offices. Passed in 1996 by citizen initiative, the legislation gives voice to those who decide to take on the common perception that in politics, only people with money matter. The law “severs the connection between private money and public office by allowing candidates to run for office without engaging in extensive fundraising or spending their own money.”

One of the Act’s most outspoken champions is Alison Smith, a mom and reluctant activist, who became involved with politics after a developer illegally drained a wetland behind her house. She subsequently worked on recycling and environmental initiatives in Connecticut and Maine. It became clear that the root of the problems she was encountering was the outsized influence of money in politics. Smith, together with the League of Women Voters, Maine AFL-CIO, the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund, and other organizations, sparked an initiative in Maine that offered a Clean Election Option, where candidates who pledged not to take private funding and who raised enough $5 contributions could receive public money to mount a competitive campaign. The initiative passed with 56 percent of the vote. By 2010, 80 percent of the state’s candidates were participating, and Vermont, Arizona, and Connecticut had launched similar programs.

Smith says that, by making candidates dependent on $5 donations, the law ensures they connect with a wide range of voters. In Maine, industry, corporations, and special interests are now no more powerful than individual citizens.