The number of legislative candidates running publicly funded campaigns is down dramatically in 2020, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials at the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Campaign Finance, the independent state agency that oversees Maine Clean Elections Act funding, said about 43 candidates who wanted to participate in the program were unable to qualify – a much higher figure than usual.

Although 208 candidates did qualify by collecting $5 contributions from at least 60 registered voters in their districts, that’s down from 229 in 2016 and 249 in 2014 – the last two legislative elections.

All 186 seats in the Maine Legislature are on the ballot this year, and there are 405 candidates, going into the July 14 primary, according to the commission’s website

During the commission’s Zoom meeting Wednesday, the three commissioners heard appeals from two candidates who were denied funding.

One was short by one eligible qualifying contribution, and one had forgotten to sign a form attesting that she collected contributions from four voters. Both said physical distancing made it far more difficult to collect the qualifying funds.

Cynthia Somas-Hernandez, a Democrat from Anson, said there was confusion in many communities about updating voter registrations while most town offices and the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices were closed to in-person business. As a result, some contributors were disqualified because the addresses on their identification did not match that on their voter registrations, or they were not registered to vote.

Somas-Hernandez said that Gov. Janet Mills’ pandemic orders only allowed town offices to open for in-person business on June 1, but candidates still faced a May 19 deadline for turning in qualifying donations and voter documentation. Soma-Hernandez is running in House District 112 against incumbent Republican Rep. Thomas Skolfield.

The commission voted 3-0 that Soma-Hernandez had not qualified for Clean Elections funding because it couldn’t confirm that 60 eligible voters had contributed $5 each to her campaign. She had over 80 contributors, but only 59 were confirmed registered voters.

However, the commission voted 2-1 to allow candidate Misty Coolidge to become eligible for Clean Elections funds. The panel decided that her sworn testimony Wednesday that she collected the four qualifying contributions would suffice in place of signing the form. The commission is also shy two members because confirmation votes were delayed when the Legislature adjourned early because of the pandemic.

Coolidge, of New Gloucester, is running as a Democrat in House District 65, which includes New Gloucester and part of Poland, against incumbent Republican Rep. Amy Arata, also of New Gloucester.

“Obviously, this year created a major hurdle in those typical solicitation and collection methods,” said Emma Burke, a candidate registrar in the ethics office. “That, combined with a lot of people experiencing financial difficulties as well as healthcare difficulties created this trend we are seeing this year.”

Burke said 43 candidates not making the Clean Elections qualifying cut is “much higher than we see in an average year.”

She said about 25 percent of those candidates realized they were not going to qualify and voluntarily switched to traditionally financed campaigns, while the remainder were automatically switched once the May 19 filing deadline had passed. The deadline would ordinarily have been April 29, but Mills extended it for 30 days.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission, said the pandemic presented a major challenge to candidates.

“The law is designed for legislative candidates to meet their neighbors in their districts and ask for $5 qualifying contributions documented with a signature on a form,” he said. “That was much harder because candidates could not go door-to-door, as they had in years past.”

Coolidge said not being able to go door-to-door made it more difficult to collect contributions. She also said other responsibilities, including homeschooling children and trying to run her business from home, took more of her time. Also, some voters were hesitant to donate because they were facing financial hardships, including unemployment, caused by the pandemic.

“Making a phone call or sending an email is all great and people will say, ‘Yes, I will donate to you.’ But then when they get sidetracked that doesn’t happen,” Coolidge said.

House candidates can receive as much as $7,500 in Clean Elections funding if they are in contested primary and general election races. Candidates in uncontested races receive less funding. Candidates in contested races can also collect additional qualifying contributions for a general election – up to $15,000. They cannot accept any private donations.

Some candidates who switched to privately financed campaigns this year are running unopposed, like state Rep. Mike Sylvester, a Portland Democrat who lives on Peaks Island.

“It just felt obscene for me to take that money when I didn’t really need it to compete, especially in these times,” Sylvester said.

Jim Cyr, an Auburn Republican who is challenging incumbent state Rep. Gina Melaragno, a Democrat, for the city’s House District 62 seat, said he realized weeks before the deadline that he would not be able to collect the qualifying contributions in time because of the pandemic, so he switched to traditional financing.

Melaragno, a three-term incumbent, didn’t meet the qualifying deadline and was switched to traditional financing by the ethics office.

Cyr said the economic pressure some voters were feeling made them hesitant to give even $5. But collecting funds as a traditional candidate presents fewer restrictions on who can give and how much.

“I’ve actually been much more successful as a traditional candidate in trying to get checks,” Cyr said.


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