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Politics

Maine Votes to Strengthen Clean Elections Laws

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine voters have approved an initiative that will boost funding for publicly financed political campaigns from $2 million to $3 million a year, and make other changes that supporters insist will bring more transparency to Maine's political system.

As of early Wednesday morning Question 1 was leading 55 percent to 45 percent with 91 percent of precincts reporting.

Question 1 came as a response to several landmark legal rulings, including the 2010 Citizens United case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited independent spending by corporations and labor unions in election campaigns.

Question One also emerged as an answer to another Supreme Court decision a year later, which found that Arizona's matching funds program for publicly financed candidates impinged on 1st Amendment rights. The court ruled that candidates who raised private money could be deterred from spending money on their campaigns if they knew that their publicly financed opponents would be awarded matching funds.

Andrew Bossie of the Yes on One campaign says both rulings left Clean Election Act candidates vulnerable to big spending by privately funded opponents.

"What Maine people proved tonight is that we won't let a Supreme Court ruling or legislation action, an action that weakened our clean election laws, win the day," Bossie says.

Question 1 increases penalties for those who violate the state's campaign finance laws and also imposes new disclosure requirements for groups purchasing campaign ads from outside the state of Maine. The initiative allows publicly funded candidates to access more money by collecting additional seed money contributions.

House races would be capped at $16,500 and Senate races at $65,000. Gubernatorial candidates would be capped at $3.2 million. Bossie says the new higher limits, coupled with the disclosure requirements, will help level the playing field for Clean Elections candidates

"With a strong Clean Elections system and enhanced disclosure and more accountability in our elections, we can have a more true democracy that works for all of us," Bossie says.

Throughout the campaign the members of Mainers For Accountable Elections have emphasized that Question 1 is the logical extension of the bipartisan support for the Maine's Clean Elections system that has served as a model for other states.

In ads, the campaign has emphasized the need to bring greater transparency to Maine to ensure honest elections.

"Because elections shouldn't be bought by wealthy special interests and their powerful lobbyists," the narrator in one says, "it's up to us to take back our elections and hold politicians accountable by voting yes on Question 1."

To deliver that message, the Yes on One campaign raised, according to the most recent campaign finance report, more than $1.3 million.

On the other side, Paula Sutton of Mainers Against Welfare for Politicians says her group's PAC started with $200 of her own money and watched it grow to $50,000. She estimates that she was outspent by proponents 40-1.

"I'm very pleased to say that 100 percent of our money was from Maine people, who live in Maine and work in Maine, and I'm proud of that," Sutton says.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage spearheaded the opposition to the question at his town meetings, calling it welfare for politicians. And the Question 1 opponents staged an aggressive political sign campaign and targeted likely voters with automated calls.

"You need to get in your car and go vote no on Question 1 to prevent the largest increase in welfare for politicians," the call says. "If Question 1 passes it will be the largest expansion of campaign cash welfare benefits in Maine's history and take millions of dollars away from veterans, senior citizens and schools."

Other opponents of Question 1 have taken different paths to attempt to defeat the question. Representing Maine's business establishment, the Maine Chamber of Commerce emphasized that while it was not opposed to strengthening the Clean Elections system, it did have some serious objections to funding that goal by eliminating business tax breaks.

Chamber President Dana Connors says the question's reliance on eliminating $6 million in business incentive programs is short sighted.

"Six million dollars that we intend or is intended, I should say, to be used to grow our economy, used to create jobs instead will go to candidates for their signs or for their efforts within their campaign," he says.

Yes on 1 organizers say a large turnout in Portland that saw 74 percent of the vote go their way was key to the evening's win.