Robert W. Glover, University of Maine
In a recent poll, 84% of Americans said that money has too much influence on politics. An equally striking 85% said that our system of financing campaigns needs fundamental changes or to be completely rebuilt. And these views are shared relatively equally across political party, gender, and income level.
It’s refreshing these days to find a political question on which Americans share a consensus. These numbers make it clear, we agree here. Money in politics is a problem and we need systematic reform to fix it. Sadly, a majority of Americans are also pessimistic about the likelihood that this system will change. This November, Mainers have a rare opportunity to do something about this.
Question 1 on Maine’s November ballot does so in three ways. First, it mandates transparency. It will require outside groups to disclose their top three funders on all their political advertising, be it radio and TV ads, or those large mailers that increasingly fill our mailboxes around election time.
Second, accountability. The initiative adds some bite to state election laws, so that when groups or individuals try to skirt election law, the Maine Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices is empowered to fine violators up to 100% of the money they spend trying to impact elections. In the past, even the Commission’s harshest fines amounted to a small fraction of what had been spent.
Lastly, the measure evens the playing field by reinvigorating Maine Clean Elections law. Until a 2011 Supreme Court decision, candidates automatically qualified for “matching funds” when they faced spending by an opponent or outside group that outstripped the cap. The initiative creates a new system by which a candidate can re-qualify for additional funds if this were to happen.
Sounds great but how do we pay for this? By eliminating $6 million in controversial giveaways to businesses. These exemptions have piled on over the years, now totaling over $1 billion with many going to large corporations from out of state. As a result, it has proven impossible for the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Oversight (OPEGA) to track and demonstrate any benefit to the people of Maine.
Lately, we’ve heard a lot of myths about what this initiative might do if put into place by Maine voters. So let’s dispel a few that have been thrown around recently:
- This move would not increase the tax burden on any Mainer.
This measure is an “investment in democracy” that makes our system more transparent, accountable, and fair. It finances that investment by ending giveaways to businesses that our state government admits probably aren’t benefitting us. No hard-working Mainer will pay more in taxes as a result of passing this initiative.
- Neither Clean Elections funding nor the additional funding authorized by this initiative is a “giveaway” for candidates.
Our state is a national leader in Clean Elections funding. Candidates access that funding by collecting a minimum number of $5 qualifying contributions (60 for House, 175 for Senate, and 3250 for Gubernatorial elections). Under this measure candidate could access additional funds if they are being outspent by a non-Clean Elections candidate or independent expenditures, but only by securing additional qualifying contributions. Any candidate will tell you this is hard work that incentivizes candidates to engage with and listen to their constituencies.
- All money is not the same when it comes to political campaigns.
Some argue that this simply injects more money into politics. This rests upon the ludicrous assumption that public money accessed by demonstrating a base of constituent support with rigorous reporting requirements is the same as gigantic donations funneled through shadowy organizations, some of which do not even have to reveal their individual contributors.
The simple truth is that communicating with large numbers of voters costs money. With Question 1, Mainers are being asked would we rather have our public officials accountable to us, the citizens, or to powerful outside groups funneling money into the state through independent expenditures. When we move past all the manipulation and rhetoric about what this initiative would do and how it would be funded, the answer is clear.
If we want to begin to address the blight of money in American politics, which 84% of us agree to be a problem, we must vote yes on Question 1 this November 3rd.