The explosion of outside money in state elections shows no signs of abating, according to a campaign spending watchdog group that claims it is also becoming harder to tell where the money is coming from. In its 11th Money and Politics Project report, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections says rather than hearing from the candidates themselves, voters now are more likely to hear about a candidate from third parties with an interest in the outcome of the race.
For years, financing Maine elections remained a relatively modest endeavor, with both gubernatorial and legislative races staying below the half-million dollar mark. But that era is probably gone for good, according to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. BJ McCollister, the program director for the organization that promotes taxpayer-financed state elections, says in the Legislature alone, outside groups have increased spending by 563 percent since 2008.
And he also says it's becoming increasingly more difficult to tell where that money is coming from. "What we're seeing is a disturbing new trend of wealthy individuals and special interests influencing our elections while keeping the voters in the dark about where this money is coming from," McCollister says.
McCollister says tracking transfers of money among allied 501c non-profit groups that can legally shield the names of contributors is turning efforts to track the money into a shell game, and the upshot is that the origin of the money that's spent by a group is sometimes untraceable.
He says that in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court concluded government cannot restrict independent expenditures, and that opened the door for unchecked spending in Maine.
"Recent court rulings have made it possible for these large unaccountable groups to play a role in Maine elections, and they're finding a way into our legislative races, as we have a weakened clean election law and a weakened disclosure law," McCollister says. "It's time for meaningful reform to ensure that voters know where this money is coming from."
But Maine Citizens for Clean Elections' efforts to advance reform of the state's public campaign finance laws has encountered resistance at the State House. The group backed a bill in this year that would have imposed higher penalties for violations that took place in the weeks prior to an election.
Although the bill passed the House and Senate, it was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. An effort to override the governor's veto prevailed in the House, but lost by one vote in the Maine Senate. McCollister says reform proponents have not given up, but election watchers consider it unlikely that any new legislation will emerge in the next session of the Legislature.
"I just don't think the rules of the road are going to change for the next election cycle, whether they should in the future or not, I'll leave to the lawmakers," says Maine Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant.
Grant says clean elections reports are useful to Maine voters, but that political parties have to play by the rules that are laid down for them by lawmakers and the courts. Republican Party Chair Rick Bennett says money in politics continues to be a persistent issue of concern in Maine and nationally. But, he also says that Maine voters tend to reject extravagant efforts that cross the line.
"At a certain point the money becomes, if not self-defeating, it becomes so excessive as to be ineffective, and Maine people do ultimately see through the messaging and the tactics," Bennett says.
At Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, BJ McCollister says statewide polls have demonstrated that Maine people want to limit the influence of independent expenditures in state politics, and predicted that the issue would be back before lawmakers again in 2015.