Why I hope Maine voters prove me wrong on clean elections

Campaign volunteers kick off the Yes on Question 1 campaign at the State House in July. Mario Moretto | BDN

Campaign volunteers kick off the Yes on Question 1 campaign at the State House in July. Mario Moretto | BDN

Okay, I must be missing something on Question 1.

Supporters claim the law is necessary to ensure “politicians are accountable to everyday, middle-class Mainers.” There are 186 elected representatives and senators in Maine. Can someone tell me which ones are not accountable to everyday, middle-class Mainers? Don’t hold back. It’s a serious charge, let’s name names.

And, if I understand correctly, a purpose of this question is to reduce corporate and out-of-state influence in Maine elections. So why is the vast majority of funding in support coming from out-of-state interests? And why isn’t there a big war-chest opposing it, funded by those corporate and out-of-state interests who purportedly benefit from Maine’s current laws?

And how did its drafters know, with specificity, the exact right dollar amounts taxpayers should spend on elections? Or what the appropriate amounts of disclosure and filing are? And if they have this superior knowledge, why did they punt on spelling out the tax code changes necessary to pay for their proposal?

Had this law been in effect in 2010 and all candidates fully participated, over $30 million tax dollars would have been spent. Put philosophical differences aside for the moment: Is this really the best use for $30 million from the public treasury? Reasonable people can disagree on the answer to that question.

Supporters claim that, yes, spending millions on campaigns is a worthy use of tax dollars to ensure political office is accessible for citizens seeking to serve in the Legislature. But the assumption implicit in that argument is fundraising is either too onerous or too corrupting for “everyday, middle-class Mainers” to undertake, and that funds are a condition precedent to elected office.

It is an open question on whether fundraising is too hard for those seeking office — after all, asking for donations is a good way to meet people in your district. Even Question 1 requires candidates to ask dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people for donations before they get the big taxpayer kicker. But supporters are right about the necessity of money; some amount of funds are required to run a campaign.

Yet spending itself does not win races. If it did, Les Otten would have been the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee and Sean Eldridge of New York — a $100,000+ donor to the Yes on 1 campaign — would be a congressman, having doubled his opponent’s spending in 2014. Like the studies showing more income after a certain amount does not increase happiness, the marginal value of an additional dollar in a campaign dissipates pretty quickly once you have “enough.”

This is especially true in Maine’s legislative elections. Don’t believe me? Ask the 83 House members who ran under the existing program in 2014. They credibly ran campaigns with $5,000, and needed around 2,000 votes each to punch their ticket to Augusta.  In order to win, they knocked on doors, met voters, and spoke to their district’s concerns — money never obviates that. Or are Republicans unable to beat Diane Russell and Justin Alfond simply because GOP candidates do not raise enough money?

The real problem Mainers have with electoral accessibility is the sheer amount of time the legislative session takes. Most people with day jobs cannot be absent for long stretches over four to six months. That is why the Legislature is heavy with students, professionals who set their own schedules, and retirees. If the objective is to allow more people to run for office, let’s start with legislative reform to create a job-friendlier schedule. Then we can assess whether taxpayers should invest millions more in bumper stickers and lawn signs.

Meanwhile, the arguments about corruption and improper influence are much more compelling. Who isn’t concerned about that? But I have to ask: does anyone think Paul LePage would suddenly support wind subsidies if SunEdison wrote him a check? Or that Chellie Pingree would vote to approve the Keystone pipeline if only Exxon made a campaign contribution? And that we wouldn’t already know those amounts were being given?

The reality is direct candidate contributions are already well-regulated and well-disclosed. But that isn’t entirely clear from the Yes on 1 commercials created by the Washington, D.C.-based ad company, “The New Media Firm, Inc.” The disclosure provisions of Question 1 apply only to so-called “independent expenditures” by outside groups for or against candidates.

But as long as donors funnel their support through other organizations, you still won’t know who the actual check-writers are. In the Lewiston mayoral race, the legislative fund affiliate to the Humane Society (of bear referendum fame) would be disclosed as an organization if they contributed to an anti-Mayor Robert Macdonald PAC. Their donors would not be disclosed, nor would the donors to countless other groups. A bonanza for campaign lawyers creating organizations behind organizations, sure, but little value to the voter.

So, maybe I’m not missing anything on Question 1. Perhaps I just disagree on the merits of the proposal. And disagreeing with the merits does not mean our electoral system is perfect, only that this proposed solution is not the correct one for the problems we face. I predicted back in December that this law would pass, but I sincerely hope Maine voters prove me wrong.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.