Mainers sent the nation a message on Tuesday, strongly approving a money in politics ballot initiative that puts control of elections back in the voters' hands and reduces the power of big money. The margin for the initiative, Question 1, was 55-45.
Maine's first-in-the-nation "Clean Elections" public financing system was adopted with strong support by referendum in 1996, and has served Maine well for nearly two decades. Its signature accomplishment is a voluntary system of public financing for candidates who agree to spending limits, allowing participants to run competitive campaigns without having to rely on special interest contributions. Through the 2010 election cycle, well over 80% of the Maine legislature ran "clean," and Maine Clean Elections was the standard by which other reform proposals were measured.
But over the past five years, anti-reform decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court -- and budget cuts at the Maine legislature -- have limited the efficacy of the system, significantly reducing the number of candidates participating.
Facing this decline in participation and thus the effectiveness of the law, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCEC) and other reform advocates crafted the ballot proposal adopted Tuesday. It provides for Clean Elections to be fully funded, so that participating candidates will have sufficient resources to run for office without depending on private contributions. It also strengthens disclosure and transparency by requiring that outside spenders list their three top donors on their political ads. And to deter violators and increase accountability, Question 1 stiffens penalties for those who break the state's campaign finance laws.
The impact of this campaign goes beyond Maine; it has value and lessons for money in politics campaigns in 2016 and beyond. These impacts include:
• The vote is a ringing endorsement of public financing in the state. When Clean Elections was first passed in 1996, 56% of voters supported creation of the public financing program. After 15 years of operation in a period of growing public cynicism about our political system, it got almost exactly the same level of support. This is a reform with staying power.
• There was great collaboration among national organizations in the campaign. Over the course of the campaign, many organizations joined forces to work towards this outcome. USPIRG, Every Voice, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, Communication Workers and other organizations contributed staff to the work on the ground. Many other groups, including Common Cause rallied their members and supporters in Maine to volunteer or make financial contributions. Every Voice, Common Cause, the Maine Education Association and the Maine Peoples Alliance all contributed substantial funds.
• Coordination between state and national advocates: Most importantly, not only did national advocates coordinate their efforts at unprecedented levels, they took care to see that their work totally reflected priorities and plans of the Maine campaign organization, Mainers for Accountable Elections. Too often in the past, in many state issue campaigns, local advocates have not had a clear idea of what national groups were doing, leading to strained relations and underutilization of resources. This Maine campaign should set a strong precedent for the future work of national groups in states and coordination with in-state campaign leadership.
There are at least two reasons for this progress. First, the campaign Steering committee was organized with national and Maine groups, which oversaw the development of campaign plans and worked to assure coordination and cooperation. Second, the Democracy Initiative, a national coalition which works to advance money in politics and voting reforms, provided opportunities for many of its 60 member organizations to participate. As a good illustration of that, the Democracy Initiative and Every Voice hosted two tele-town halls in recent weeks in which the Maine members of national groups were encouraged to promote the import of Question 1 and encourage volunteers for GOTV work; the second of these meetings just last week attracted over 5,900 Mainers!
• When money in politics reform advocates offer solutions in the states, they can mobilize significant support. Some money in politics advocates have contended that to really mobilize the public to work for reform, you need proposals that promise sweeping change, like a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United case. But in Maine, a state with only 1.3 million residents (two congressional districts), more than 1,000 volunteers were mobilized a year ago to obtain the 85,000 signatures that put Question 1 on the ballot. In the four days leading up to the voting, over 700 Maine volunteers went door knocking and phone calling for the campaign's get out the vote efforts. This enthusiasm crossed the state line. USPIRG organized close to two dozen staff from around the country to work in Maine in the campaign's final days; Every Voice had 12 staff in Maine for GOTV work, and 60 students from Columbia University came to Maine to knock on doors.
The Maine campaign demonstrated that there are clear opportunities to make solid progress in building a vibrant and muscular money in politics and democracy movement. National groups can put aside concerns over credit and coordinate their work. Activists can be engaged and mobilized by strong state and local campaigns. Most of all, a real partnership can be fashioned between national and state campaigns, creating a whole that is much greater than the sum of the parts. Now the challenge is to build on this progress in the field and replicate the victory in Maine in at least a half-dozen significant money in politics state campaigns in 2016.