It’s almost Labor Day, and the shape of the presidential campaign is clear. With the character of the two major candidates exhaustively vetted, we should shift to a more important question: What kind of presidency, and, especially, what kind of Congress do we want?

It’s vital we consider not only who will govern, but what we want them to do — and our top priority should be restoring faith in our elections, and our democracy.

The big question, as the Constitution says, is how “to form a more perfect union.” There are many ideas about electoral reform, but no consensus about what’s most important.

There’s “voter suppression,” the shameful campaign by contemporary Republicans to reverse 200 years of making democracy more inclusive, by extending the vote to ex-slaves, women, and 18-year-olds, while abolishing property tests and the poll tax. Instead, today’s Republicans, including those in Maine, have tried to make voting more difficult by requiring photo IDs, cutting back on absentee and early voting, purging voter lists, and eliminating polling places.

In Maine, a people’s veto canceled a 2011 Republican-backed law abolishing same-day voter registration, and we’ve had no more of this nonsense since.

Yet the most discriminatory laws have already been struck down by courts, and the rest can be handled through the legislative process. It doesn’t require new ideas or heavy lifting.


Another popular idea is that gerrymandering has entrenched a permanent Republican majority in the U.S. House, and that, even if Hillary Clinton wins and Democrats take the Senate, there’s no chance there.

Skepticism is in order. Consider: The 2010 Republican tidal wave saw them pick up 64 House seats under districts created largely by Democrats.

Yes, Democrats did win slightly more votes than Republicans in 2012, without gaining many seats, the first test of district-packing. But it was a slim margin, and a wider vote for Democrats in November would capture seemingly “safe” GOP seats. In any case, gerrymandering’s effectiveness decreases as voters move around — and nothing we change now will have any effect until 2022.

One widely praised solution — replacing legislators with independent commissions that draw districts — is dubious. Far better to use Maine’s system, where redistricting plans must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature. If they aren’t, the state Supreme Court chooses between the competing plans.

These matters, though important, don’t compare in significance to a larger issue: Six years after the notorious Citizens United decision, how do we prevent elections from being buried by money?

Fortunately, there’s a simple, clear solution: public financing of congressional and legislative campaigns. And Maine has a great model, the Clean Election system.


Because of previous faulty U.S. Supreme Court decisions, participation is voluntary, but most candidates choose public financing, which supplies reasonable funding in exchange for giving up private fundraising. It also creates a more representative Legislature, since anyone can run without needing big contributors.

The high court that gave us Citizens United later managed an even worse decision in an Arizona case, the only other state using the Clean Election model. The decision, by Chief Justice John Roberts, struck down matching provisions that helped convince candidates to accept public financing, insisting it was “unfair” not to give privately funded candidates an advantage — Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning at which Roberts excels.

The decision did crimp participation for the 2014 elections, but a Maine referendum then created a new matching system, and candidates responded. At its peak, in 2012, 67 percent of candidates were publicly financed, declining to 52 percent in 2014 but rising again to 60 percent this year.

It’s true more Democrats forego private funding, but 74 percent of Republican Senate candidates ran “clean” in 2012. Clearly, the system works.

Extending Clean Elections nationally won’t be easy, but if it becomes a top priority, it could happen. Voters are more disgusted with campaigns than any time since Watergate — when we did get public financing for presidential elections.

Funding for congressional races has proved tougher, though then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell came close in 1994, proposing a stronger version of the McCain-Feingold reforms that finally passed in 2002, and became the Supreme Court’s main target in Citizen’s United.


A few national groups, including Common Cause, emphasize public financing, but everyone concerned with elections should be talking about it now.

The only real objection to public financing is the contention taxpayers shouldn’t pay.

Yet we know the consequences — millions and billions of dollars spent on largely negative messaging, remote from any real voter concerns or actual proposals to fix things. By comparison, public financing is a bargain.

Maine has shown the way. We should raise our voices, in unison, until they’re heard in Washington.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. His new book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at:

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: