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Pulse Newsletter: As Voting Rights Move To The Spotlight, Maine’s Senators Split

Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins.
AP Photos
Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins.

In this week’s Pulse: Sens. King and Collins sharply divided on failed voting overhaul; a deeper look at Mills’ veto of the foreign-influence bill; the Dean departs.

Maine’s two U.S. Senators this week were divided over Democrats’ broad rewrite of federal election and voting law after Republicans successfully blocked the measure.

The outcome, foreshadowed months ago, leaves Democrats scrambling for alternative ways to fulfill what they say is a top policy priority amid sweeping attempts by GOP-controlled legislatures to tighten voting rules.

The proposal, known as the For the People Act, is one of the biggest federal election overhauls since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, creating federal guidelines for early and mail-in voting, prohibiting the partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and creating a public campaign financing system for congressional races.

The bill was originally introduced in 2019, but it’s been more recently framed by Democrats as an urgent attempt to counteract actions by Republican state legislatures acting on former President Donald Trump’s stolen election fallacy.

However, Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine, characterizedthe For the People Act as a “partisan messaging” vehicle jam-packed with a liberal wish list of rules that would subvert states’ rights to enact their own voting laws.

“So when we hear of a bill entitled ‘For the People,’ we naturally would assume at first that it must be enhancing our democracy,” Collins said during a speech from the Senate floor Tuesday. “But a closer examination suggests otherwise. In fact, S.1 would take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens.”

Congress has intervened in federal election and voting law before, including with the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act and 2002 Help American Vote Act.

Collins made note of the Voting Rights Act, but said the For the People Act failed to qualify as the “basis of a reasonable, bipartisan elections reform bill.”

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King took a starkly different view.

He characterizedthe bill as establishing a “floor that ensures every American can exercise their right to vote, while still providing states the flexibility to adjust rules in ways that better serve their citizens.”

King also noted that the GOP vote to block further debate Tuesday effectively stiff-armed opportunities to fine-tune the proposal to garner bipartisan support.

“Unfortunately, every one of my GOP colleagues voted to block any discussion of the issue, denying us the opportunity to build toward consensus that would defend our time-honored electoral traditions – including a serious effort at compromise introduced in recent days that was rejected instantly,” he said.

Collins was also criticized for parroting a popular GOP talking point that seeks to downplay a new law passed by Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature. She said “in many ways” Georgia’s new law is less restrictive than other states like New York. The fact-check site Politifact noted in April that such claims are true in some cases and not in others, but also that such state-to-state comparisons lack context; for example, New York has either enacted or is considering new laws that expand voting, such as automatic registration and no-excuse absentee balloting.

Nevertheless, some prominent election law experts viewed the For the People Act as destined to fail precisely because it contained provisions that Republicans would never support -- or because it made it easier for them to justify opposing it.

Among the GOP non-starter provisions is a public campaign financing system for congressional candidates that resembles Maine’s Clean Elections program for legislative and gubernatorial candidates. Collins described the initiative as “forcing Americans to subsidize the campaigns of politicians with whom they vigorously disagree or simply dislike.”

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the bill specifies that no taxpayer dollars can be used to finance the program. Instead it calls for financing it with a “surcharge on criminal or civil penalties and settlements from corporations, corporate officers, or in some cases, individual tax code violators who are in the top income bracket.”

Still, such provisions are viewed by some moderate Democrats as problematic in practice, politically, or both.

King, in comments to the New York Times last week, said he viewed the public financing piece as a provision that he would jettison. His position drew criticism from Anna Kellar of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine in the Bangor Daily News, who argued that the small-dollar donations public financing brings candidates closer to voters instead of big-money donors.

While Kellar correctly noted that King has been a supporter of Maine’s clean elections program, King seems to view the federal counterpart initiative as a roadblock for enacting other more crucial voting and election protections.

Some election law experts seem to agree with him.

In March, Rick Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine, warned that the For the People Act contains a wish list of “progressive proposals” that might go too far for moderate Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans. Hasen correctly predicted that moderate Democrats were unlikely to torpedo the Senate filibuster rule to enact the proposal.

“That makes it an unlikely vehicle for convincing Democrats to abandon the filibuster requirement for voting rights bills, as I and others have advocated,” Hasen wrote in the Washington Post. “Why would Democrats such as Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who say they want to keep the filibuster in place, vote to abolish it for a bill that might not even have majority support?”

King, for his part, has expressed a willingness to get rid of the filibuster for the sake of protecting voting rights. However, he told CNN on Wednesday that he’s not ready to do so to pass the For the People Act.

Instead, King seems to be hoping that continued work on a counterproposal by Manchin might be the path forward. Manchin has proposed dropping the public financing provision and adding a national voter ID requirement. The GOP quickly rejected his offer.

Democrats’ legislative path forward is unclear, but aligned advocacy groups say they’re not giving up. Shortly after the defeat of the For the People Act, Priorities USA, a leading Democratic Super PAC, announced it would spend $20 million in a multi-pronged effort to beat back Republican voting restrictions.

Mills channels Citizens United

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday vetoed a bill that would ban entities with foreign government ownership from electioneering in ballot campaigns. In doing so, she seemed to echo arguments made by defenders of the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision that has unleashed a torrent of campaign spending in U.S. elections.

She argued, in part, that companies with foreign government ownership have a right to be heard in ballot campaigns and that voters benefit from hearing from them.

“Government is rarely justified in restricting the kind of information to which the citizenry should have access in the context of an election, and particularly a ballot initiative,” she wrote. “L.D. 194 would deprive voters of information and opinion from those entities covered by its prohibitions during the referendum process. The theory is that what these entities have to say is categorically inappropriate for consideration; that it is somehow tainted, should be declared ‘interference,’ and that voters must be shielded from it. That is a theory I reject.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy took a similar view when writing the majority opinion in the Citizens United case.

“Quite apart from the purpose or effect of regulating content, moreover, the Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers. By taking the right to speak from some and giving it to others, the Government deprives the disadvantaged person or class of the right to use speech to strive to establish worth, standing, and respect for the speaker’s voice. The Government may not by these means deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration. The First Amendment protects speech and speaker, and the ideas that flow from each.”

Of course, Kennedy was talking about speech by American corporations, while Mills is defending the speech of those controlled by foreign-owned governments. Supporters of the bill, which was inspired by Hydro-Quebec’s $10 million campaign for Central Maine Power’s transmission corridor, have argued that such speech protections in the democratic process are reserved for domestic entities, not those owned by foreign governments.

The governor also made a curious claim that the bill would affect several Maine companies.

“Entities with direct foreign investment employ thousands of Mainers,” Mills wrote. “They include Stratton Lumber, Woodland Pulp and Paper, Backyard Farms, McCain Foods, and Sprague Energy, to name just a few. Legislation that could bar these entities from any form of participation in a referendum is offensive to the democratic process, which depends on a free and unfettered exchange of ideas, information, and opinion.”

However, the bill would have applied to companies with 10% or more of foreign government ownership, but not foreign corporate owenership. Despite calls from interest groups that viewed the proposal as a way to limit corporate influence in elections -- and counteract the effect of Citizens United -- drafters of the bill purposely struck language that would have made the electioneering prohibition apply to companies with foreign investment or ownership.

Maine Public has thus far been unable to find evidence that any of the companies cited by the governor have ownership by foreign governments.

All of them either have foreign investment or foreign ownership.

A spokesperson for the governor said the governor listed the companies to demonstrate that foreign investment in Maine companies is “pervasive” and that identifying sources of investment would be difficult and impractical.

“But more importantly, her fundamental concern about the legislation is that it positions the government to restrict what the people may hear and the kind of information to which people should have access in the context of an election and, thus, she believes, it is bad policy and likely unconstitutional,” the spokesperson said.

Happy trails to The Dean

It’s about to get really weird in the state house press corps.

Mal Leary, reporter, colleague and friend, is retiring after nearly 50 years as a journalist. Most of those years were spent covering the state house and Maine politics, which has made Mal the go-to source for reporters seeking historical information or just juicy stories about Maine’s political luminaries.

He covered the first independent governor, Gov. James Longley, for the UPI newswire beginning in 1975.

He’ll leave after having covered the state’s first woman governor, Gov. Janet Mills, for Maine Public Radio.

It's why he's often called the Dean of the state house press corps.

The Dean’s last day is July 2.

As Mal said in his departing note to the company, “Truth telling generates both friends and enemies, and I have had my share of both. But I wouldn’t do it differently.”

Mal has also left his imprint on state politics coverage with his work for the Right to Know Advisory Committee, as President of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, and President of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Anyone who covers state or local government knows how important Maine’s public records and open meetings law are to accountability and the public’s right to know. They can thank Mal for helping make Maine’s sunshine laws better than most (although as Mal would readily acknowledge, it could even better if Maine citizens, and not politicians, were ratifying the changes).

Mal’s departure means that WCSH’s Don Carrigan is now the longest-serving member of the State House press corps. As it turns out, Mal and Don worked together at what was formerly known as MPBN.

Don Carrigan and Mal Leary at the MPBN 1996 Senate debate.
Don Carrigan and Mal Leary at the MPBN 1996 Senate debate.

Mal has been quiet about his next chapter, but those of us who have worked with him for a while know that he has long promised (threatened?) to write a book about his reporting adventures.

We here at Maine Public hope that he does.

After all, he’s got the tapes.

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Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.