Another Election Day is coming on Nov. 3, and the opinion pages are heating up. A particular focus is Question 1 on the ballot, proposing measures that will reform and strengthen Maine’s Clean Elections system. A recent flurry of articles, letters and opinion columns has attacked Clean Elections as politician welfare, a pay raise for legislators, and a scam.

Why would we as taxpayers want to help fund politicians’ campaigns when there are so many pressures on public dollars to fund important needs?

The fact is, much as opponents want to make Clean Elections look like a conspiracy of politicians to fleece the public coffers, this was citizen-initiated election reform. Voters approved this expenditure in 1996 through a referendum, with a decisive vote of 56 percent to 44 percent. It is not very often that taxpayers get to speak so directly on how their tax money should be used in the state budget.

The public was not hoodwinked. What Maine voters said then and continue to say now is that they want their candidates to focus on the issues in campaigns, not on raising money from interest groups. They cared enough that they backed it with money.

Support for Clean Elections continues to run strong. In 2013, Maine polling firm Critical Insights found that 84 percent of Maine respondents felt that it is important to continue to have Clean Elections. Two-thirds replied that they would be more likely to vote for a Clean Elections candidate. Overwhelmingly (86 percent), respondents declared that there is too much money in politics.

I ran for the Legislature five times using the Clean Elections system. I won three out of five elections — a good batting average but not so great in politics. When I began running for the House of Representatives in 2004, most of the candidates for House and Senate ran using the Clean Elections system. Participation rates were 78 percent in 2004, 81 percent in 2006 and 2008, and 77 percent in 2010.

In each campaign cycle, I ran a seven-month campaign on a budget that ranged over the years from $4,800 to $9,000. I raised a required amount each year to demonstrate my constituents’ support of my campaign. The bulk of my campaign budget, however, was supplied by state Clean Election funds.

When candidates agree to use public financing, they campaign within a spending cap, take donations of no more than $100, and take no PAC, corporate or union money. Clean Election candidates make a statement that they want to work within an election system where voters are more important than corporate contributors.

After 2010, Maine’s Clean Elections initiative changed dramatically because of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions. First was the 2010 Citizens United decision, which permitted unrestrained campaign spending by organizations and corporations.

The second was a ruling in 2011 that gutted Arizona’s (and Maine’s) matching funds policy, which allowed candidates to receive matching funds if their opponent raised more than the spending cap or if outside groups spent a lot of money on their race. Matching funds had created a level playing field between publicly financed candidates and well-funded opponents.

After those disastrous decisions, the Clean Elections participation rate dropped to 63 percent in 2012 and tumbled to 53 percent in 2014, with Republicans declining at a much higher rate, particularly in the House races.

Some of those Republicans now argue against increasing Clean Elections funding because it would result in more campaign junk arriving in your mailbox and on your phone. Well, the future is already here. Look at what happened when the floodgates opened after the Citizens United ruling. In 2008, outside (“independent”) expenditures on Maine’s legislative races totaled about $600,000. By the close of the 2012 elections, that number increased to $3.6 million, a nearly six-fold increase.

My own race in 2012 was swamped with those unwanted postcards, brochures, robo-calls and ads. My Clean Elections funds totaled $4,784; my opponent, Rep. Deb Sanderson, raised nearly $15,000 and the outsiders poured $42,581 into our race.

I’m sure we both liked the supportive mailings, but when you can’t control the message, especially if it’s nasty, you’d just as soon not have any of that spending flood into your race. We both said as much during the campaign.

True, Question 1 will do nothing to stop the flow of independent expenditures. It will, however, make them more transparent, requiring outside groups to list their top funders on their political ads and brochures.

If you want to decrease the volume of junk mail and annoying robo-calls that flood into your home, then work to overturn Citizens United. If you want to assure that a broad range of everyday people can run in Maine elections — not just the well-to-do or the well-connected — then vote yes on Question 1 on Nov. 3.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees.


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