Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.
Americans are fed up with the increasing grip of big money on our politics. This month, a new poll found that 85 percent of Americans — including more than 80 percent of both Republicans and Democrats — believe our campaign finance system needs fundamental changes. Nearly as many are also disillusioned and deeply cynical about the possibility of a solution in the near future.
Maine is doing its best to change that — and in the process, providing a model for how states can push back against big money in elections without waiting for a divided and dysfunctional Congress to act. This year, Mainers will vote on a referendum to enhance its first-in-the-nation Clean Elections law, to confront the tsunami of big money triggered by U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United.
Clean Elections has served Maine well for nearly two decades, allowing candidates to run competitive campaigns without relying on large private contributions from special interests. Public campaign financing has encouraged more diverse candidates to run, kept campaign costs under control, and enabled candidates to spend more time with voters, instead of the wealthy donors, corporations and PACs who fund traditional campaigns.
In the years since Clean Elections was adopted, however, the Supreme Court and outside organizations have gradually chipped away at this hard won victory. Citizens United allowed unlimited independent spending in elections and Arizona Free Enterprise limited Clean Elections candidates’ ability to compete against newly-empowered independent spenders. Faced with this one-two punch, many assume nothing can be done to fight back. But that’s just not true.
This November Mainers have a chance to revitalize public campaign financing and strengthen their state’s disclosure and campaign finance laws. This landmark referendum is a national model for ensuring that state governments remain of, by and for the people — not special interests.
The referendum ensures that Clean Elections remains fully-funded so candidates can run for office without depending on private contributions. It strengthens disclosure laws so voters can know where special interest money is coming from. And it enhances penalties for those who break the state’s campaign finance laws so violators are actually held accountable and no longer see fines merely as the cost of doing business.
Taken together, this referendum, which earned a place on November’s ballot with more than 80,000 citizens’ signatures, will ensure that Mainers are represented by Mainers, not shady special interests from outside the state. It will position Maine as one of the nation’s leaders on campaign finance reform. Vitally, it will send a message to other states that citizens are willing to protect the public interest — even if legislators are not — by enacting comprehensive new laws to combat the rising influence of big money in politics.
And the message appears to be resonating. Voters in Oregon are working to amend their state’s constitution to allow campaign contributions limits, which are currently prohibited there. Lawmakers and civic-minded citizens are working together in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico to bolster their cities’ public financing programs. And myriad other campaign finance reforms are under development in many other states.
More Americans than ever are troubled by the flood of big — and often secret — money into our elections. Too often that money warps public policy to reflect the concerns of those who can afford to purchase special access and influence in government, rather than the average voter. Maine’s referendum — and reform movements in Oregon, New Mexico and elsewhere — are heartening signs that voters across the country are innovating and advocating creative solutions that empower candidates who are not beholden to their donors. Until the Supreme Court overturns Citizens United, and the Congress rediscovers reality, our best hope for effective campaign finance solutions rests with states like Maine.