Not so clean elections

In 1996, Maine voters approved a referendum question, creating the beast we refer to today as “Clean Elections.” Since the Maine Clean Election Act went into effect, millions of public dollars have gone to politicians to buy signs and bumper stickers and even an Apple Macbook or two.

Such an Orwellian name, no? Who in their right mind could be against Clean Elections? Is there a “dirty elections” movement afoot, pushing underhanded and nefarious elections waged with gleeful exuberance?

Thankfully our do-gooding saviors are here to come to our rescue once more.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections is working to spearhead a petition drive, intended to strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act and dump more money into the system.

The proposed legislation intends to skyrocket the available public funds for all candidates running for state office. Gubernatorial candidates would now get $3.2 million rather than the $1.2 million they are currently afforded. State senators would get $65,000, instead of $21,455. State representatives would get $16,500 each, instead of $5,000.

It would also lower the contribution limits for private campaigns, so the evil rich people couldn’t write big checks to corporate stooges and infect budding lawmakers with their poisoned cash.

But Maine people were lied to in 1996, and they are going to be lied to again. By any rational measure, the Maine Clean Election Act has failed.

The only tangible “success” of the MCEA is that about two-thirds of public office-holders take advantage of it. Free money from the taxpayers for doing very little work? How surprising they’ve taken the bait.

The other goals of the system? Complete and total failure.

Proponents of Clean Elections claimed that providing easy public financing would inspire a new generation of public servants. They said that people who wanted to participate in government, but were intimidated by raising money and involving themselves with the corrupting mess of money in politics, would now have a way to participate. Soon, we would have an army of teachers and firemen and students and other noble classes of human beings making our decisions in Augusta.

Not so much, in reality. Maine’s capital is still filled with the same cabal of lawyers and business leaders it always had. The makeup of the Legislature hasn’t changed much.

How about the idea that getting donor money out of politics (and lowering the limit) improves the system by keeping the evil flow of money out of politics?

Actually, it has had exactly the opposite effect. By limiting money being funneled directly to campaigns and candidates, the MCEA has instead created a shadow world of politics removed from the people actually running for office.

Rather than donating money to candidates, who have to disclose recipients and are directly responsible for what they spend money on, political sugar-daddies are instead channeled to third-party groups.

These groups typically have unfamiliar names, don’t have to report their donors, and are not legally able to coordinate with campaigns. Thus they end up swooping into races, dumping in a lot of money, and then swooping out again, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of basically everyone.

Could laws be amended to change that? Well, maybe (although there is this little problem called the Supreme Court to deal with), but more importantly, even if they are, money always finds a way. Always.

The answer for Maine is actually quite simple. Empower candidates to be the masters of their own campaigns by dramatically raising the contribution limits (or removing them entirely), and create total and complete transparency for campaign donations.

This would starve third-party groups by empowering campaigns and would allow the public to make decisions regarding a candidate’s activities.

Money in politics has always been a terrifying boogyman for politicians, allowing them to push laws, like Maine Clean Elections, which are better for them but worse for the system.

But, in reality, money is not what decides elections. If it was, Ross Perot would have twice been elected president of the United States, and Les Otten would be governor of Maine.

Running elections in Maine is unbelievably cheap, and for most campaigns the person who knocks on the most doors and meets the most constituents wins anyway.

Ask yourself one simple question: Has the Clean Election law made your representation in Augusta better? If the answer to that question is “no” (which it is) then welfare for politicians should be done away with.

Mainers need to look beyond the sound-bite arguments and clever marketing of things like Clean Elections and come to the conclusion that the more complicated, imperfect answer (scrapping it and going entirely in the other direction) is, in fact, the right one.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.