Canvassing voters in Portland, Maine in 2015. Photo credit: Jon Fox, Friends of the Earth U.S.

Maine votes money out, people in

by Jon Fox, senior democracy campaigner

Watching the results roll in from Tuesday’s election in a bowling alley in Portland, Maine, started out tense. I had just come back from knocking on doors in nearby Brunswick, encouraging the last stragglers to get to the polls before they closed. Everything was all lined up, and the election-watch party crowd was eagerly waiting for the last pin to fall. When the majority of the 573 polling stations reported their results, the race was called. The people of Maine voted to take back their government, and Question #1 passed by a wide 10-point margin.

Together with me at the election-watch party that night were dozens of students, volunteers young and old, and staff working for Mainers for Accountable Elections. This was the culmination of months of planning — ever since 80,000 Mainers self-organized to put Question #1 on the ballot through a completely volunteer-driven effort. Everyone there was motivated by the same frustration. Our political system is out of whack, tilting towards the rich and powerful and away from the desirers and aspirations of everyday Americans. Whether you care about fighting climate change or economic justice, Americans from coast-to-coast feel that our politicians just aren’t working for us. But on Election Day, Mainers decided not to give into despair and cynicism. They decided to lead the way for the emerging national democracy movement by fixing their government through the ballot box. On Tuesday, they proved it can be done.

Question #1 takes on the powerful financial interests gaming our political system with three important fixes. It increases transparency of political donations so that voters know who is paying for and supporting their candidates. If Exxon wants to run ads supporting a candidate sympathetic to expanding off-shore oil drilling, then they should be honest and tell the voters they are paying for the ads.

Rules of the road aren’t enough to stop dangerous drivers, you need cops watching out and handing out tickets. Question #1 also establishes real penalties and consequences for those who break the rules. Mainers have had enough and voted to put in place real sanctions on those who violate campaign rules in Maine.

In addition to increased transparency and accountability, Question #1 goes one step further to fundamentally change how we do politics. Question #1 ensures that everyone — not just the corporate Super PACs — is represented in government by restoring public campaign finance elements of Maine’s Clean Election Act. This will be funded by getting ride of low-performing, unaccountable corporate tax giveaways that will generate $3 million or more in annual savings. Question #1 delivers a creative system of public matching funds that encourages candidates to run for office without having to depend on special interests to fund their campaign. This allows exceptional people like State Representative Diane Russell, who was working as a check-out clerk at a local Portland convenience store, to run and win a seat in the state legislator. She first ran and won in 2008, before a conservative legislator did away with Maine’s existing public campaign finance, and her campaign was able to rely on small donations from supporters in her community. These donations were later matched 4-to-1 by the State, so that she didn’t have to raise money hat in hand from the small circle of mega donors. After seven years of tirelessly serving her constituents, Representative Russell is now one of the most popular and successful legislators in Maine.

The public campaign finance system reinstated in Maine is a game changer, not merely a tweak to an unbalanced system. It realigns a candidates’ focus back to ordinary citizen voters and away from concentrated powerful private interests. In addition, public campaign financing is a popular idea nationally, with polling indicating that the majority of Americans support such proposals. And probably most importantly, we know this works. Maine is (re)joining 13 states where public financing of campaigns already exist in some form, including major cities such as New York City, Los Angeles and Albuquerque.

Sunrise on Election Day, at the Portland office of Mainers for Accountable Elections in 2015. Photo credit: Jon Fox, Friends of the Earth U.S.

By removing candidates’ dependency on a handful of rich and influential donors, public campaign finance encourages equality, representation, and fairness in our government. After all, if our politicians are more focused on pleasing their Big Oil donors than addressing the hopes and desires of voting constituents, how do we expect to pass rules protecting the environment? Reinstating public campaign financing in Maine is an important first step to reducing the role of corporate and polluter money in politics and policymaking. Mainers proved to all of us that it can be done — Americans can take back control of our government.

This Tuesday people power and good old fashioned organizing beat the negative TV ads and scary robo-calls discouraging voters from taking back their government. When Mainers voted Yes on Question #1 they reminded me, and all of us, that we can fix our politics. It’s easy to forget that we are a nation of dreamers that shoot for the moon even when everyone says it can’t be done. Every so often we need to see it happen to remind ourselves. On Tuesday night, passionate people in Maine proved that it can be done. We can come together to fix our democracy, and finally have a government of, by and for the people.

Waiting for the election results to roll in, Portland, Maine in 2015. Photo Credit: Jon Fox, Friends of the Earth U.S.