‘Tis election season once again. Time for slick ads to fill the airwaves. Time for glossy mailers to arrive in mailboxes, highlighting candidates’ virtues and vices. Time for aspiring lawmakers to meet in community centers to debate the issues that are most critical to the economic and social well-being of our state.

One topic rarely discussed, however, is the increasing influence of money in politics, both here in Maine and nationwide. It should be.

The financing of campaigns has long been a concern of Maine people. In the 1990s, when the state’s Ethics Commission published a report showing that candidate spending was rising at an unprecedented rate, a group of Mainers from across the political spectrum put their heads together to find a new way to fund campaigns.

For more than a year, they worked to craft legislation designed to reduce the influence of big money in elections and give more weight to small contributions from Maine voters. Once the bill was crafted, Mainers from across the state collected enough signatures to get the legislation on the ballot and then conducted a statewide campaign in support of its passage. In November 1996, voters approved the initiative by a wide margin. The venture was a true exercise in democracy.

The new law, known as the Maine Clean Election Act, exceeded all expectations. At its peak, 85 percent of legislative hopefuls — myself included — chose to run as “clean” candidates. Without having to hold fundraisers and spend countless hours on the phone collecting campaign contributions from high rollers, candidates were free to knock on doors and meet the people they hoped to represent.

For me, it was the experience of a lifetime. I met people from all walks of life and political persuasions. People welcomed me into their homes, walked me through their gardens and plied me with homegrown veggies. But best of all they talked about the issues that mattered most to them. After I was elected, I never forgot what I learned “doing the doors.” When I went about my work in the Legislature, I knew I was beholden to no one except my constituents.


But that was then. Recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have weakened the Clean Election Act, causing participation to decline. The decisions also opened the floodgates, allowing an unending supply of money to flow into Maine. According to reports filed with the Ethics Commission, outside money in the race for governor alone amounts to a record-breaking $8.4 million already — with still more than a week to go. Virtually all of the ads you see on TV and on the Internet are carefully constructed by pricey consultants, and disclosure laws have not kept up. That makes it difficult for the average person to know who is behind all the spending.

That’s why Maine people at the grass roots are working once again to promote the passage of a new Clean Election initiative — one that will restore transparency to the political process and strengthen the law that worked so well for so long. We, the people, can’t just give up and hand over the reins of democracy to the wealthy few who spend big money to influence the outcome of our elections.

This November, hundreds of Mainers from across the state will work at polling places in towns large and small to offer Maine people a chance to sign the Clean Elections Initiative petition.

If you care about democracy as I do, then I invite you to join us in this people-powered effort. The best way to make sure that the Clean Elections Initiative petition is at your polling place is to sign up to volunteer yourself. If you can, devote the day, or at least a couple of hours to democracy. And whether or not you’re able to volunteer, learn more about the initiative by going to mainecleanelections.org.

Democracy works best when people at the grass roots participate in the political process. It’s a lot of hard work and an uphill battle because campaign finance reform that works is not easy to achieve. But Eleanor Roosevelt said it rightly: You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Like getting money out of politics.

Marilyn Canavan represented part of Waterville in the Maine House of Representatives from 2000-08. Before that, she was director of Maine’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

Comments are no longer available on this story