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Maine Clean Elections

On November 5, 1999, Chief Judge D. Brock Hornby, of the United States District Court for the District of Maine, issued his much-anticipated decision in Daggett v. Webster, Civil No. 98–223-B-H.

Published: November 6, 2003

Maine’s Clean Election Law Upheld
Federal Judge Rules Public Funding System, Involving Voluntary Spending Limits and Trigger Provisions, Is Constitutional

On November 5, 1999, Chief Judge D. Brock Hornby, of the United States District Court for the District of Maine, issued his much-anticipated decision in Daggett v. Webster, Civil No. 98–223-B-H. This case consolidated challenges brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and National Right to Life organizations against the Maine Clean Elections Act (MCEA), which was enacted by the voters in Maine in the fall of 1996, and which will take effect for the November 2000 elections. The case has significant legal implications, since it is the first court decision in the nation to address the constitutional validity of the “clean money” initiatives that already have been adopted in several states and are expected to be on the ballot in several more in November 2000. According to Brennan Center Senior Attorney Glenn S. Moramarco, ‘“The Maine Clean Elections Act has been given a resounding vote of confidence by the federal courts, and it will continue to be a model for state campaign finance reformers in the future.”

Why is the decision significant?

The decision is significant because the MCEA is the first full public funding system adopted by any state in the nation. Subsequent to its adoption in Maine, voters in Arizona and Massachusetts, as well as the legislature in Vermont, adopted full public funding systems based on the MCEA model, and the Arizona and Vermont measures are facing current federal court challenges. Additional “clean elections” initiatives are expected to be on the ballot in several states in 2000, including Missouri and Oregon. Thus, Judge Hornby’s decision upholding the MCEA sets an important precedent and sends a powerful signal to reformers throughout the country that this type of system is constitutionally sound. (Interestingly, Judge Hornby also ruled that the “express advocacy’” definition adopted by the Federal Election Commission is unconstitutional. Maine Right to Life Comm. V. FEC, 914 F. Supp. 8 (D. Me. 1996).

What does the Maine Clean Elections Act do?

The Maine Clean Elections Act is the nation’s first full public funding system for state legislative and gubernatorial races. Under the MCEA, candidates for public office in Maine who choose to participate and who raise a specified number of $5 contributions from registered voters receive a public subsidy to run their political campaigns. In exchange, participating candidates agree to forgo all private fund-raising. The MCEA also contains ‘trigger’ provisions that provide additional limited funds to participating candidates when outside groups run ads against them or when they face a non-participating candidate who outspends the amount of the initial public subsidy.

What did the Judge decide?

Judge Hornby ruled that the Maine Clean Elections Act is constitutional in all respects. More specifically, Judge Hornby rejected: (1) plaintiffs’ challenge to the voluntariness of the system as a whole; (2) plaintiffs’ claim that the State was impermissibly endorsing ‘clean’ candidates; (3) plaintiffs’ claim that the matching fund provisions abridge First Amendment rights; (4) plaintiffs’ challenge to the expedited reporting requirements imposed on non-participating candidates; and (5) plaintiffs’ challenge to the provision of public funds for primary campaigns.

What did the Judge say?

Judge Hornby held, first and foremost, that voluntary public funding systems are constitutional: “P]ublic financing of electoral campaigns is constitutional. Buckley v. Valeo established that proposition . . . . Far from being a threat to First Amendment values, such measures are an ‘effort, not to abridge, restrict, or censor speech, but rather to use public money to facilitate and enlarge discussion and participation in the electoral process, goals vital to a self-governing people.’’ (quoting Buckley).

Judge Hornby rejected plaintiffs “most vociferous[]” complaint, which was that it is unconstitutional for the MCEA to provide limited matching funds to participating candidates who face non-participating opponents or who are attacked in ads sponsored by third parties: ‘It is here perhaps that there is the most profound disconnect between First Amendment jurisprudence, based upon the late-eighteenth century values reflected in the First Amendment, and what are assumed to be the political realities of late-twentieth century campaigning. To be specific, the plaintiffs want to preserve the ability to “out spend” their publicly-financed opponents. Their view of free speech is that there is no point in speaking if your opponent gets to be heard as well . . . . The general premise of the First Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court, on the other hand, is that it preserves and fosters a marketplace of ideas.’

Is the case over?

No. Judge Hornby has not yet decided whether Maine’s new contribution limits are constitutional. When the MCEA was passed, the initiative also reduced the contribution limits for candidates who choose not to participate in the voluntary full public funding system. For those candidates, the contribution limits, which previously were $1000, have been reduced to $500 for gubernatorial candidates and $250 for House and Senate candidates. The Judge indicated that this was a more difficult question, especially in light of the uncertainty created by the Supreme Court’s pending decision in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Gov’t PAC, 68 U.S. Law Week 3239 (oral argument held on No. 98–963 on October 5, 1999). However, contrary to the contentions of the plaintiffs, Judge Hornby has explicitly and definitively held that the Clean Elections Act is constitutional regardless of the outcome of that separate question.

What was the Brennan Center’s role in the case?

The Brennan Center represented five Maine current officeholders and candidates who sought to intervene in the action to defend the constitutional validity of the Clean Elections Act. Although initially denied intervention, an immediate appeal was taken, and the Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the district court to reconsider its denial of intervention. On remand, the district court allowed the plaintiffs, through their attorneys at the Brennan Center, to participate fully in the case with the consent of the State defendants.