Activists in Portland have taken out papers to put two charter amendments aimed at electoral reforms on the November ballot: One would create a municipally funded clean elections program and the other would extend ranked-choice voting to all school board and City Council races.

The Fair Elections Portland campaign is being spearheaded by Democracy Maine, a partnership between Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine.

Democracy Maine Executive Director Anna Kellar said Friday her group has been looking into the election reforms for the last two years “in response to the rising intensity and vitriol of Portland campaigns and the increasing cost of running for office.”

A local clean elections program, like the one used for state offices, was championed by Joey Brunelle’s two unsuccessful bids for the City Council.

Brunelle said last week he’s happy the proposal is coming forward, because he has talked to people interested in serving in elected office, but they are discouraged by the amount of money they feel like they have to raise.

“That should not be the limiting factor for people with good ideas and good politics who want to give back to their community,” Brunelle said. “If you look at the money spent on City Council races in recent years, it has gone up dramatically and that has led to a lot of negative effects.”

In recent years, some council candidates have raised over $20,000, while mayoral candidates have raised more than $100,000.

Mayor Ethan Strimling called on the council to move on both initiatives during his 2019 State of the City Address. Strimling decried “big money in municipal politics” in January – just two days before filing a campaign finance report showing that he had raised nearly $43,000 in two months, putting him on pace to surpass the $117,000 he raised in 2015.

Kellar said she asked Strimling to pull his proposals from the council, so the policies could be tested at the ballot box.

“We believe it’s important that these charter amendments are introduced and advocated for by the public from the start, as opposed to a politician or political candidate,” Kellar said. “The best democracy reform usually comes directly from the people.”

Strimling said last week he agreed with the group’s strategy for enacting the reforms through the ballot box.

“I have been working on these reforms with them and others for over a year and they are vital next steps in making our local government more accountable,” Strimling said. “I look forward to helping collect as many signatures as I can and then advocating for a ‘yes’ vote on both this fall.”

Last year, Kellar worked with City Councilor Belinda Ray, who sponsored a charter amendment to require a 42-day campaign finance report to municipal candidates. In that case, the council voted to put the measure on the ballot and residents overwhelmingly approved it, with 75 percent voting “yes.”

Ranked-choice voting has been used in Portland’s mayoral election since 2011. It was used for the first time in gubernatorial, legislative and federal primaries last year. It was also used last year in the general election for federal offices, but not for state-level races, which the Maine Constitution says are decided by a plurality.

Democracy Maine is also advocating at the state level for a constitutional amendment to allow ranked-choice voting to be used in the general election for governor and state legislative races. That effort would first require two-thirds support from each legislative chamber and then be ratified in a statewide general election.

A local clean elections program would allow candidates for municipal office to receive an allocation from the general fund, which is funded through property taxes, to finance their campaigns, and would likely be modeled after the same program used by gubernatorial and state legislative candidates.

But Kellar said it would be up to the City Council to establish rules and funding levels of the program, should the measure make it to the ballot and get voter approval.

The amendment calls for “sufficient funds to allow candidates who meet qualifying criteria to conduct competitive campaigns.”

City Manager Jon Jennings warned of potential costs to taxpayers.

“The effort to require a clean elections process at the municipal level will lead to the further crowding out of necessary and core functions of municipal government,” Jennings said. “There is a limited amount of revenue to pave streets, fix sidewalks, and address critical needs in our community unless the proponents of this effort believe taxes should be increased to develop and maintain a city clean elections program.”

In state races, clean elections candidates may collect seed money before becoming clean elections-certified. Candidates may accept up to $100 from an individual donor. The maximum amount  of seed money that can be collected by a House candidate is $1,000. Senate candidates can collect up to $3,000 and a gubernatorial candidate can collect up to $200,000.

Candidates must demonstrate community support by collecting qualifying donations of at least $5 from voters in their districts. House candidates need at least 60 qualifying contributions, Senate candidates need 175 and gubernatorial candidates need 3,200.

House candidates may received up to $1,500 for an uncontested general election and up to $15,000 for a contested general election. And Senate candidates can receive up to $6,000 for an uncontested general election and up to $60,000 for a contested general election.

Activists, who took out papers on April 4, have until Aug. 2 to collect 6,816 valid signatures for each initiative for them to go on the November ballot, which will include a mayoral election.

If approved by voters, public financing for local campaigns would be available for 2021 election cycle.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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