Maine’s largest city to vote on public campaign finance measure

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With campaign spending on the rise in their city’s election, voters in Portland, Maine will decide in November on a ballot question that aims to level the playing field for candidates running for local office.

The ballot issue, called Clean Elections, would create a voluntary public campaign finance program for municipal election candidates in Portland — a program similar to a well-established program offered to public election candidates in Maine. If approved, the Clean Elections program would make Portland the first municipality in Maine to offer public funding to candidates. The measure would also prohibit all candidates from receiving corporate contributions, prohibit foreign-influenced entities from incurring expenses related to voting matters, and improve transparency of information about campaign contributions.

The Clean Elections initiative was approved to appear on the July 11 ballot by the Portland Charter Commission, a body created in 2020 to review changes to the city’s charter. The initiative was then given the green light to appear on the September 1 ballot from the city council.

The campaign supporting the measure, Fair Elections Portland, says it will “put power back in the hands of the people” and empower elected officials to represent the people who elected them rather than special interests.

Although the U.S. Census estimated Portland’s population at a modest 67,000 in 2020, municipal elections have become increasingly expensive. Portland’s most recent mayoral race in 2019 saw record sums of money, with candidates reaching six figures and PACs racing to support their favorite candidates. Fair Elections Portland, which is leading the effort on the ballot issue, compiled figures showing overall spending in the 2019 mayoral race was more than double that of the city’s 2015 contest. Over the past decade, total candidate fundraising has also risen sharply in elections for Portland General Council seats, District Council seats and school board races, according to data from Fair Elections. Portland.

“In 2017, a group of activists in Portland started talking about the growing problem of money in politics at the local level,” said Anna Kellar, campaign manager for the Yes on 3 campaign, the Clean Elections issue. “What had always been low-key local elections were becoming increasingly contested and costly, and with that all the concerns that go with it – could ordinary people afford to run, what kind of influence did that buy on local elected officials?

“With this problem, we were lucky to have a solution right in front of us: we already had a solid experience of using a clean electoral system at the state level, adopted by referendum in 1996, a program long-standing and popular,” Kellar told Sludge. . “Portland-area state legislature candidates use it, and it’s very well known in the city. The decision was made to move towards a charter amendment for a clean election program.

In Maine, a system of voluntary public funding for participating candidates for all offices in the state was passed by voters in 1996 as the Maine Clean Elections Act and reinforced by a referendum in 2015. The program requires that candidates collect a certain amount of $5 from voter contributions. in their district in order to qualify, then commit to spending only the money they receive from the state avoiding any private funding.

From the 2016 to 2020 election cycles, 55% of state candidates participated in the grant program, according to a March 2021 report by the group Democracy Maine. The report also shows that beginning with the 2020 election, public funding has grown to become the largest share of state campaign spending, having been dominated by private funding as recently as 2016.

At its peak, up to 85% of the legislature used clean elections, according to Andrew Bossie, the former executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE), with seven out of 10 women in office saying that having an option public funding was very important in their decision to run.

In Portland, the Clean Elections program, proposed to start in the 2023-2024 election, would – like the state system – award funding to participating candidates who demonstrate support from Portland residents, meet contribution limits private and would agree to participate in at least one public debate, among other things. As with other public campaign finance programs in states and cities, the Clerk’s Office would create a searchable online database of all campaign finance information. Any unused funds in the Portland system would be returned to the Clean Elections Fund.

A cost estimate prepared by the charter committee put the total per program cycle at around $290,000, significantly less than the candidates had raised for mayor, even before including fundraising for city ​​council and school board positions.

In addition, the issue of clean elections would require the city to adopt rules prohibiting corporate contributions to municipal candidates in elections and prohibiting foreign entities from spending on voting matters, whether contributing to campaigns or incurring expenses. direct. In June of last year, Maine’s legislature passed and the governor signed a bill banning corporate contributions to candidates, joining 23 other states and the federal government in the ban. Companies can still establish separate fund committees, or PACs, and allow PACs to use their phones and computers.

Long road to the ballot

The issue of clean elections will appear on the November ballot after a delay of years spent navigating legal issues. In the summer of 2019, organizations such as the League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections collected enough signatures to place a clean election question on the ballot, with over 8,000 signatures from Portland residents. In September 2019, however, the city council voted to block the citizens’ initiative from appearing on the ballot, arguing that the initiative would instead require a longer charter review process, a decision that sparked years of legal challenges from lawyers.

Kellar says that in 2019, the coalition reached the formidable signing threshold with volunteer efforts across the city, “a combination of door-to-door, street corners and farmers’ markets, and community meetings.” . One campaign volunteer conducted outreach in the South Sudanese community of Portland, and another brought petitions for elections specific to arts and music venues in Portland.

In the summer of 2020, the city launched a call for a charter commission, a process that Kellar said opened another path for the Clean Elections initiative to be approved to reach the ballot. Kellar says Fair Elections Portland groups worked closely with commissioners — three appointed by city council, nine elected by voters — to review the municipal proposal in light of the state’s public funding system.

The Maine Commission on Government Ethics submitted a memo in September 2021 to the City Charter Commission on best practices for administering a campaign finance program that included guidelines on auditing and accounting.

Because he would endorse a city charter amendment, Kellar said, the initiative would provide dedicated funding for the program, insulating the clean election program from the risk of having funding cut by the city council year on year. year.

“Having been caught up in the process since 2019, this voting issue is a return to the heart of the matter: the cost of applying,” Kellar said. “Let’s talk about the problem of money in politics and how clean elections can solve this problem. People need to know that they have the opportunity to show up and vote for something really positive that they already support in the state.

Also this year, voters in Oakland, Calif., will decide on a ballot measure that would create a public campaign finance option called “democracy dollars” for candidates in the city — a program also designed to increase the participation in local politics and allow candidates from a wider variety of backgrounds to mount competitive campaigns for office.

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