Last week, a group of Mainers rallied in Augusta in support of a ballot initiative to make Maine elections “clean.” The referendum would make several changes to the Maine Clean Elections Act, including increasing public financing for candidates, increasing fines for campaign finance violations, and forcing third-party ads to reveal their biggest donors.
Supporters would have you believe that their goal of clean elections is necessary to keep big money out of politics, but the truth is their “reforms” will do little to nothing to stop the influence of outside money or increase transparency in Maine elections.
The Myth of “Clean” Elections
Maine’s Clean Election Act became law in the late 90’s, with the goal of allowing candidate’s to avoid donations from special interests by providing public financing. By giving candidates taxpayer money to run their campaigns, so the argument went, they wouldn’t need to pander to special interests for donations. In reality, what we got was taxpayer subsidized candidates who found new ways to raise and spend “dark” money.
Former Senate President Justin Alfond, running under the Maine Clean Elections Act, raised over $200,000 through his leadership PAC while receiving over $20,000 in taxpayer dollars, far more than the average amount spent on traditionally financed campaigns. One has to ask, is the Maine Clean Elections Act really keeping money out of politics, or has it created a system that encourages significantly more spending by special interests?
Alfond isn’t the only candidates to act like this. In an op-ed to the BDN, Rep. Larry Dunphy and Brian Jones admitted than many candidates operate PACs while running their campaign with taxpayer dollars.
While it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that public financing would deter candidates’ reliance on special interests, it turns out that public financing has actually increased campaign spending from outside sources, while making the process much less transparent.
The Super PACs
One provision in the referendum, a requirement that third-party political advertisements reveal their top donors, will do nothing to increase transparency. The truth is, special interests have known for a long time how to game the system and avoid donor disclosure requirements.
Take for example The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class. This liberal super PAC, which ran several ads in the 2014 election cycle, would be required by the ballot initiative to list its top 3 donors on any ads in 2016. Except the top donor to The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class is the Maine People’s Alliance. If you want to see who the people behind MPA are, good luck. The MPA is a 501(c)4 organization, which in turn is not required to reveal it’s donors. By using shell organizations, liberal donors are able to pay for television and radio ads without ever revealing themselves. All of this is completely legal, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that other organizations won’t do the exact same thing if the referendum passes.
Most political giving happens at the 501(c)4 level, where donors are protected from disclosure requirements. From there, the 501(c)4 can donate to PACs or ballot initiatives at their leisure, where the money is spent on elections. By placing a few organizations between the donor and campaign spending, liberals can protect their donors from the very transparency they claim to be advocating.
Big spending liberals like Donald Sussman may continue to give directly and openly to super PACs like the Committee, but they’ve never worried about hiding their political affiliations. Special interest groups that want to disguise their political leanings and influence have learned to hide their donations through various liberal (c)4’s, (c)3’s, and Super PACs.
Proponents of clean elections may have good intentions, but they are wrong to tell Mainers that their ballot initiative will bring transparency to the election process.
Free-Flowing Staff and Resources – The Liberal Hydra
Cut off one head, and two more shall grow in its place. In many ways, the liberal money machine operates as a mythical hydra, with new groups rising and falling as the need arises.
The Maine People’s Alliance is at the center of this free-flowing circle of dark, untraceable money. If you look through donations to The Committee, you’ll find a substantial $50K contribution from Maine Votes. What’s this rather nondescript group that has tens of thousands of dollars to dole out? Maine Votes is just another front organization for MPA.
When liberals decided that they needed the credibility of small businesses to support their initiatives, they created the Maine Small Business Coalition out of thin air. The Maine Small Business Coalition touts itself as an independent organization formed and operated by small businesses, but when confronted by reporters, the Maine People’s Alliance admitted it was part of their organization.
The MPA and other liberal groups collaborate to create front groups to advance their agenda. They allow staff, cash, and resources to flow freely between their various organizations. Often, MPA employees work as the staff of other liberal front groups. Employees of the Committee represent a who’s who of progressive leaders in Maine. Listed as officers by the Maine Ethics Commission are the executive director of MPA, as well as leaders of the Maine Education Association. In-kind contributions listed on financial disclosures appear to show employees of Planned Parenthood, NEA, and Environment Maine spent a lot of time working with/for the Committee, although it is difficult to tell what exact services they provided.
The Hypocrisy Made Clear
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that donating money to an organization anonymously is wrong. I can think of plenty of justifiable reasons why people donating to political organizations would want to keep it a secret. What I am saying is that liberal groups in Maine have perfected the method of moving money secretly to avoid transparency, and their calls for “clean” elections and transparency are hypocritical and dishonest.
The liberal groups behind the clean elections initiative, like the Maine People’s Alliance, know how to work the system in order to keep donors private, and they’ve been doing it for years. Why, then, would they support a referendum that would reveal those donors? The answer is that the referendum’s reforms are superficial. Let’s review the three major changes that they’re pushing for.
1. Increased fines for violators: Who cares? These groups are able to hide their donors legally without violating campaign finance laws.
2. Revealing the top three donors for outside political ads: That changes nothing. Donors who prefer to remain anonymous can essentially launder their money through 501(c)4’s which are not required to reveal their donors.
3. Increase public financing: It’s clear that public financing does not accomplish its goal of keeping money out of politics. Publicly financed candidates take taxpayer money, and then operate PACs to rake in special interest money to boost their campaigns.
The Mainers for Accountable Elections referendum will not make campaigns/elections any more open. All it will do is allow liberals to campaign against big money and special interests in politics, while still raking in the money through progressive front groups and anonymous PACS.
If liberals were serious about transparency and special interests in politics, they’d act on it. They could voluntarily reveal their donors and reject donations from special interests. But they won’t. They’ll simply find new ways to transfer that dark money, while publicly whining about the out-sized influence of special interests.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that House Speaker Mark Eves ran under Maine’s Clean Election Act in 2014. He did not.