The assault on Maine’s Clean Elections, explained with GIFs

Perhaps you’ve recently heard that House Republicans in Maine are holding our upcoming election hostage. What does that mean? How can one party in one chamber hold hostage an election? And what the actual heck can be done about it?

Voilà, the GIFsplanation you’ve been waiting for. Please put your tray table up, your seat back in its full upright position, and prepare for a wildly turbulent flight into the Category 5 Hurricane that is the modern Republican party’s sabotage and destruction of our governmental institutions and democracy itself.

Our story begins in 1995. Bill Clinton was in the White House. The Macarena was sweeping the nation. Bill Gates became the world’s richest man at age 39 with his fortune of $12.9 billion, and this decade was very, very good for the top 1 percent. (Despite the persistent myth of Reagonomics, there was no trickle-down effect from massive tax cuts for the rich, and for the bottom 90% of Americans, wages stagnated while a significant share of their wealth was transferred right up to the top.)

At the same time, political parties started exploiting a loophole in campaign finance rules to raise and spend larger and larger sums of $$$. They were making it rain during elections, and it was becoming more and more clear that corporations and the very wealthy were buying politicians—and consequently, policy.

Here in Maine, a determined group of citizens decided to take matters into their own hands, and put a citizens initiative on the ballot to establish a system that would allow candidates to run for office without having to spend all their time raising money or self-finance (an expensive option only available to a small percentage of people). In 1996, it passed with more than 56 percent of the vote.

The first test of the new law was in 2000, when candidates for the State House and Senate ran using Clean Elections for the first time. The results: Half of the Senate and 30 percent of House members were elected without any special interest money. By 2002, those numbers rose to 77 percent of the Senate and 55 percent of the House. Clearly, Clean Elections was working.

Now let’s zip forward in time.

Over the next decade and a half, the number of candidates using the system rose even more, up to 80 percent by 2008. But then came….dun dun dun…Citizens United, along with a wave of other Supreme Court decisions favoring big money. An important provision of Maine’s law was struck down as a result of a Supreme Court decision.

But undeterred, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a group formed to keep clean elections on track in Maine, put a second citizen initiative on the ballot—this time to restore the law to its original intent. The measure sought to increase funding, make disclosure laws even more transparent, and close loopholes in campaign finance laws. Maine voters went to the polls in November of 2015 and re-affirmed their support for Clean Elections.

Whew, what a rollercoaster. Good story! And since then, Clean Elections has been functioning flawlessly, without interruption or disruption? Case closed? Happily ever after? The end? La fin? El fin?

In the preceding years, Governor Paul LePage had led the charge into a new era of politics in Maine that featured an utter lack of regard for the norms of institutions like the state legislature. (Not to mention the norms of basic decency, respect, not being overtly racist, and so on and so forth.)

His behavior was contagious. For example: in 2015, the same year Clean Elections was put back on the ballot, House Republicans took advantage of a tiny typographical error in the state budget (an erroneously-placed “and”) to hold up $38 million in funding for Efficiency Maine, popular energy efficiency program. It was a dramatic preview of their looming hostage-taking behavior.

Flash forward another two years (now we’re in 2018), when it comes to light that Republicans were prepared to use another tiny typo to re-litigate another program that has experienced broad popular support and success—that’s right, our very own Clean Elections.

House Republican member Jeff Timberlake explained it this way: “Our caucus has never been a big proponent of Clean Elections.And I still don’t think we’re a big proponent of Clean Elections. I knew we would get another whack at it, and this is where we are at.”

OK, so what does their obstinance and obstructionism mean?? Understanding the play happening here requires digging into the numbers a little.

Bear w/ me; this will be quick and very painful.

Remember how we said more and more candidates were using Clean Elections over time? That is true in the aggregate, but at a certain point, the # of candidates by party started to really differ. See?

So, back to what’s happening with Clean Elections: Because of the little typo in the budget, and House Republicans’ absolute refusal to fix it, all the funds Clean Elections candidates should have gotten after July 1 are frozen.

Wait. Wait. So you’re saying the number of Democratic candidates running clean massively outnumbers Republicans, including and especially in “swing” districts that have often exchanged party hands in midterm elections? And that precisely at this moment of a midterm election, Republicans have effectively frozen all funds to all clean elections candidates, giving them a proportionately massive structural advantage going into November?

Sadly, no. And that’s not all. At the same time as Representative Jeff Timberlake and his friends were holding up funding for after July 1, Gov. LePage was refusing to sign a routine authorization for Clean Elections funding that candidates qualified for before July. He’s said that he can hold up funding for any program that he doesn’t like—at any time. Poof.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you rig an election.

OK. So let’s talk action.

What is happening? Who is doing something? What can I do?

First: You may have heard the good news that our friends at Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, along with seven Clean Elections candidates, four voters who’d given qualifying contributions, and the state Ethics Commission, sued Governor LePage to make him release the money—and they won! A judge has ruled that Gov. LePage must release funds.

This is a partial win. It releases more than a million dollars that’s owed to candidates. But it’s not a total fix. First off, LePage is totally slow-walking his forced compliance with the law, going so far as to say the Ethics Commission staff have to distribute the money themselves (instead of the financial services employees who usually handle that task). Second: Remember that silly little typo? It will take legislative action to fix the error—which is, given the demands of House Republicans to roll back the minimum wage and weaken the entire citizen initiative process is….not likely.

…Which means Maine Citizens for Clean Elections will likely be back in court, asking for an order that forces the state government to pay out funds to candidates, ignoring the error. All this, because a governor and a few house republicans would rather put their own political advantage over the rule of law, and the will of the voters.

SO: what can YOU do.

1. See how your legislators voted on the clean elections bill.
2. Tell them to fix the error in the budget now.
3. Volunteer for the candidates you like. You know what beats money? People. Knocking on doors, making phone calls, and getting out the vote – that’s how grassroots campaigns can make the difference.
4. Donate to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections for their legal defense fund.

Let’s go!

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