Maine’s Biggest City Will Vote on Public Campaign Financing Measure

With campaign spending on the rise in their city’s elections, voters in Portland, Maine will decide this November on a ballot question that aims to level the playing field for local office seekers.

The ballot question, also called Clean Elections, would create a voluntary public campaign financing program for candidates running for municipal office in Portland — one similar to a well-established program offered to candidates for state office in Maine. If the Clean Elections program is approved, Portland would become the first municipality in Maine that offers public funding to candidates. The Clean Elections program would also ban candidates from accepting corporate contributions and prohibit foreign-influenced entities from making expenditures related the ballot questions. It would also increase transparency in campaign contribution information.

Clean Elections was launched. approvedThe Portland Charter Commission (a 2020-created body to review changes to City Charter) will allow the initiative to be on the ballot on July 11. The City Council approved the initiative for inclusion on the Sept. 1 ballot.

Fair Elections Portland, the campaign backing the measure says it “will put power back in the hands of the people” and empower elected officials to represent the people who elected them rather than special interests.

Though the U.S. Census estimated Portland’s population at a modest 67,000 as of 2020, city elections have become increasingly expensive. The 2019 Portland mayor race was the most recent. record amountsCandidates raising money in the six figures and PACs jumpingTo vote for their favorite candidates, please visit Fair Elections Portland, which leads the effort on the ballot question, has compiled figures showing that overall spending in the 2019 race for mayor was more than double that of the city’s 2015 contest. Fair Elections Portland data shows that candidate fundraising has increased sharply over the past decade in elections for Portland’s at-large council seats and district council seats.

“In 2017, a group of Portland activists started talking about the increasing problem of money in politics at the local level,” said Anna Kellar, campaign manager for the Yes on 3 campaign, the Clean Elections question. “What had always been low-key local elections were becoming much more hotly contested and high-spending, and with that all of the concerns that go along — could ordinary people afford to run, what kind of influence was it buying over local officials?

“With that problem, we were lucky to have a solution right in front of us: we already had strong experience with using a clean elections system at the state level, passed by referendum in 1996, a longstanding and popular program,” Kellar told Sludge. “Candidates for state legislature in the Portland area use it, and there’s a high degree of familiarity with it in the city. A decision was made to head to a charter amendment for a clean elections program.”

Maine has a voluntary public funding system that funds all candidates for state office. passedMaine Clean Elections Act was adopted by the voters in 1996. strengthenedBy a referendum in 2015. To qualify for the program, candidates must collect $5 from their district voters to be eligible. After that, they must commit to spending only money they receive from state and avoiding any private funding.

According to a report, 55% of state candidates participated, from the 2016 to 2020 elections, in the grants program. March 2021 reportFrom Democracy Maine. The report also shows how public funding has risen to become a larger share of state campaign spending as of 2020, after being dominated by privately-raised funds up until 2016.

At its peak up to 85%Andrew Bossie (the former executive director at Maine Citizens for Clean Elections) stated that 80% of the legislature used Clean Elections. Seventy-seven percent of women in office said that public financing was an important factor in their decision not to run.

In Portland, the Clean Elections program, proposed to start in the 2023-2024 elections, would — similar to the state system — issue funding to participating candidates who prove support from Portland residents, abide by limits on private contributions, and agree to take part in at least one public debate, among other things. As with other public campaign financing programs in states and cities, the city clerk’s office would create a searchable online database of all campaign finance information. Any unused funds in Portland’s system would be returned to the Clean Elections Fund.

A cost estimateThe Charter Committee calculated that the program’s per-cycle cost would be approximately $290,000. This amount is considerably less than the money candidates raised for mayor.

The Clean Elections question would also require that the city adopt rules to ban corporate contributions to municipal candidates and prohibit foreign entities spending on ballot questions. This applies whether they are contributing directly or making campaigns. The Maine legislature passed the Clean Elections question in June last year. passedThe governor signed a law prohibiting corporate contributions for candidates. This ban joins 23 other states as well as the federal government. Companies can still create separate segregated funds committees (or PACs) and allow PACs access to their telephones or computers.

Long Way to Ballot

After several years of navigating legal issues, the Clean Elections question will be on the November ballot. In the summer of 2019, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine gathered enough signatures for a clean election question to be placed on the November ballot. over 8,000Signatures from Portland residents The City Council, however, will meet in September 2019. voted to prevent the citizen’s initiative from appearing on the ballot, mounting an argument that the initiative would instead require a lengthier charter revision process, a decision that triggered years of legal challenges from advocates.

Kellar says that in 2019 the coalition reached the formidable signature threshold with volunteer efforts across the city, “a combination of door-to-door, street corners and farmers markets, and community meetings.” One campaign volunteer led outreach in Portland’s South Sudanese community, and another brought clean elections petitions to Portland arts and music venues.

The city called for a Charter Commission in the summer of 2020. This process, Kellar stated, opened up another avenue for Clean Elections to be approved to the ballot. Kellar says that Fair Elections Portland groups worked closely with commissioners—three appointed by the city council, nine elected by voters—in reviewing the municipal proposal in light of the state’s public financing system.

The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics submitted an a memo in September 2021 to the city’s Charter Commission on best practices for administering a campaign finance program that included guidelines on auditing and bookkeeping.

Kellar stated that the initiative would provide dedicated funding to the program because it would approve an amendment of the City Charter. This would protect the clean elections program against the possibility of funding being cut by the city council year after year.

“After being caught up in the process since 2019, this ballot question is a return to the core issue: the cost of running for office,” Kellar said. “Let’s talk about the problem of money in politics and how clean elections can fix that. People need to know they have the opportunity to turn out and vote for something really positive that they already support in the state.”

Oakland, California voters will also decide this year on a ballot measure that would create a public campaign financing option called “democracy dollars” for city candidates — a program similarly designed to increase participation in local politics and enable candidates from a wider variety of backgrounds to mount competitive campaigns for office.