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Maine Could Ban Foreign Influence In Its Elections, And The Ballot Campaign Has Drawn Early Support

In this Nov. 12, 2018 file photo, ballots are prepared to be tabulated in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District election in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Nov. 12, 2018 file photo, ballots are prepared to be tabulated in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District election in Augusta, Maine.

The campaign seeking to ban electioneering by foreign governments in Maine ballot initiatives is getting early support from donors who backed the 2016 ranked-choice voting referendum and other election reform advocates.

The ballot question committee Protect Maine Elections is working to get the measure on the 2022 ballot, and so far, it's getting significant financial support from John and Mary Palmer, who also gave thousands of dollars to the ranked-choice voting campaign.

The Palmers, who live in Maine, gave Protect Maine Elections a combined $25,000, according to the committee's initial finance report.

Democratic state Rep. Kyle Bailey, of Gorham, led the 2016 ranked-choice campaign and he's also leading Protect Maine Elections, along with Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford.

Bailey says the foreign electioneering issue is drawing interest from a range of supporters, including those behind ranked-choice voting and people concerned about money in politics.

"I think this is a unique issue that brings Democrats, Republicans, independents, Greens, Libertarians together because despite our differences we all agree that our political system isn't working and that money is an issue, but in particular, that foreign governments and their subsidiaries shouldn't be involved in our elections," he said. "Maine elections should be for Maine people."

Protect Maine Elections launched the citizens initiative in August, shortly after Democratic Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a similar prohibition, arguing that a foreign electioneering ban would unfairly silence companies owned by foreign governments.

A similar assertion was made by backers of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which erased contribution and spending limits for American corporations.

As it turns out, some of those who are seeking to undo Citizens United are also backing the proposed Maine ban on foreign government electioneering.

Among them is Jeff Clements, president of American Promise, which is seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution to reverse Citizens United.

Clements previously donated to a 2015 campaign that strengthened Maine's Clean Elections program and added transparency requirements to the state's campaign finance laws.

He and Nancy Heselton, of Peaks Island, have donated a combined $25,000 to the Protect Maine Elections committee.

The foreign government electioneering prohibition was prompted by Hydro-Quebec, the Quebec government-owned energy generator that's spent $10 million trying to stop a referendum that could scuttle Central Maine Power's transmission project through western Maine.

The company has been seeking to increase its U.S. energy exports, a goal backed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Hydro-Quebec, which would supply the electricity for the CMP project known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, has called the Maine project the largest sales contract in its history.

However, its spending in the corridor fight has been criticized since 2019 when it began exploiting a loophole in Maine campaign finance laws. State and federal law ban contributions or expenditures on candidate campaigns, but both are silent on ballot measures.

Several states have recently implemented bans on foreign electioneering. Additionally, campaign finance reformers have attempted to curb spending by foreign-owned companies — not just those owned by foreign governments — as a way of limiting corporate spending in elections.

Such an effort was attempted in the Legislature this year, but lawmakers instead settled for a prohibition only on companies with foreign government ownership, such as Hydro-Quebec.

The bill received bipartisan support but not enough to override the governor's veto.

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