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A campaign in Maine is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would ban foreign money from influencing state elections. The new campaign reflects Maine’s continuing role as a laboratory for voting reforms aimed at strengthening the power and voice of local citizens, regardless of political affiliation.

Foreign nationals are prohibited from donating to US political candidates and committees under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FEC). However, the FEC recently upheld a loophole in federal law that allows foreign influence in state and local ballot measures, and has left it up to the states to outlaw it.

Protect Maine Elections, a bipartisan group of Maine lawmakers and citizens, filed its measure with the Maine secretary of state in November. If it passes next year, Maine will be on a path to join the small list of states that have laws that bar foreign governments, foreign companies, or both from spending to influence ballot measures. The group has partnered with American Promise, a national nonpartisan anti-corruption group, to collect 80,000 signatures to place the measure on the 2022 midterm ballot.

“This group — Republicans, Democrats, and independents in Maine — are so concerned about this issue that they said, ‘we need to take this to the people,’” said Jeff Clements, President of American Promise. “We can’t have foreign governments spending money in Maine’s elections.”

Summary of Initiative to Prohibit Foreign Influence

The ballot referendum, “An Act to Prohibit Foreign Influence in Maine Elections and Promote an Anti-Corruption Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”, if passed would do the following:

  • Prohibit contributions and expenditures in state and local political campaigns from foreign governments, foreign-owned companies, and foreign influenced entities;
  • Require disclosure on ads paid for by foreign governments to influence state public policy;
  • Require media outlets to regulate political ads to avoid violation of this law and the immediate removal of prohibited communications; and
  • Affirms Maine’s support for a US constitutional amendment that allows citizens through their government to regulate spending in elections, and charges the state’s ethics commission with issuing reports on the progress made by the state’s delegation in Congress to advance the amendment in a bipartisan manner.

Why Go After Foreign Influence?

Concerns over foreign campaign donations emerged over the last few years as Hydro-Québec, an energy company owned by the Province of Québec, campaigned in Maine for approval of a proposal to build transmission lines that would connect its Canadian power plant with distributors in Massachusetts. Opponents of the transmission line sought a vote on a ballot measure in the November 2020 election that would have blocked the construction of electric transmission lines in a central region of Maine that borders Canada.  The referendum was removed from the 2020 ballot, however, after the Maine Supreme Court issued an opinion that citizen initiatives require legislative action.

While the fate of the transmission lines was still up in the air, Maine legislators came together in the late spring of 2021 to limit the influence of foreign money in its elections with bipartisan passage of LD 194, which would have closed a loophole in state law that allowed electioneering by foreign governments and foreign government-owned entities.

“As a company owned by a foreign government, Hydro-Quebec should not be allowed to electioneer in this state”, wrote state Senator Rick Bennett (R), who co-sponsored  LD 194.

That effort ran into a roadblock, however, when in June of this year, Maine Governor Janet Mills (D) vetoed LD 194. Even though Bennett’s bill had sailed through both chambers of the legislature, it did not have enough support to overcome Mills’ veto.

“The governor’s message was really a challenge,” said Clements. “In her statement she said this law, not foreign government money in elections, but this law was offensive to the democratic process.”

The veto allowed Hydro-Québec to spend $20 million more in 2021 to oppose a revised initiative to prevent construction of the transmission lines. The revision, resubmitted for the 2021 election cycle, would not only block the transmission lines project, but require future projects to be approved by two-thirds of the state legislature. It appeared on the November ballot as Maine Question 1, and despite the company’s efforts, nearly 60% of Maine voters approved the measure.

The victory bolstered the resolve of Protect Maine Elections and supporters of the current ballot initiative to eliminate foreign spending in state elections.

“Maine folks tend to be independent, and they don’t like being told what to do,” said Clements. “So, when they face concentrated power in political parties or monied forces, they stand up for themselves.”

The Protect Maine Elections campaign is chaired by Sen. Bennett, and its referendum is based on LD 194. It also includes disclosure and transparency provisions from legislation introduced by former state representative and campaign manager Kyle Bailey (D) that require media regulation of political advertisements to avoid violation of the law.

Early Adopters of Changes Favoring Voters

Electoral refinements are not new to Maine voters. The state has a long history of taking action to improve elections on behalf of its independent-minded voters, including the use of ranked choice voting, switching to open primaries, no-excuse absentee voting, and same-day registration.

Mainers approved a referendum in 2015 to expand the state’s first-in-the-nation clean elections law to include more public funding for publicly financed candidates.

Maine was the first state in the nation to adopt ranked choice voting (RCV) at the state level through a ballot referendum in 2016. The ranked choice voting campaign, which was also managed by Kyle Bailey, focused on the state’s record of electing public officials, including the governor, with as little as a third of the vote. Ranked choice voting would correct this by ensuring that each winner would receive at least 50% of the votes.

Challenges to implementation of RCV required Mainers to vote again to implement it in the 2018 primary through a People’s Veto. 50,000 more voters cast a ballot in the People’s Veto than the gubernatorial primary races in both parties. The Maine Legislature expanded ranked choice voting’s use to the presidential elections in 2019.

In June 2021, lawmakers passed a law to switch to an open primary system that allows approximately 400,000 registered independent voters in Maine to choose between a Republican and Democratic ballot in primary elections.

These steps made voting easier in a state that already had no-excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration, which Maine enacted in 1973.

Mainers, Clements observed, are problem solvers. Their priority is to do what benefits the citizens of Maine most, and empower their voice at the ballot box, whether the issue is money in politics or who gets to vote in elections or how citizens vote.

“When there is a problem that needs to be addressed they look for a solution, and if the solution makes sense they are going to use it,” said Clements.

It’s On The States To Save Democracy

Republicans and Democrats largely agree that foreign spending in state and local elections is a problem. Most Americans, regardless of political affiliation or identity, think election spending is out of control.

Citizen Data reported in January 2021 that 70% of Americans believed less money in politics would make the US political system better. The University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation found that 75% of Americans want congressional action to limit election spending.

Congress, however, is locked in political stagnation. Any efforts by Democratic lawmakers to pass laws in 2021 designed to improve the electoral process for voters — including making changes to campaign finance law — have stalled due to Republican opposition, regardless of public support. This includes the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Clements argues that the focus needs to be on the states.

“You gotta work in the states,” he said. “It is not about going into Congress and telling them this is a great idea. It is about when it becomes politically necessary to do the thing they really hate doing, which is actually working together.”

That’s a tough sales pitch when 19 states have enacted 33 laws in 2021 in a clearly partisan attempt to make it harder for some to participate in elections. Still, even as such efforts darken our democracy, states like Maine are showing us what it takes to become a more perfect union: a problem that the majority want to fix and the will to pursue a solution over partisan or other loyalties.

Problem Addressed: Voting Rights

Written by Shawn Griffiths

Published: December 15, 2021

Feature image: Yaroslav Muzychenko on Unsplash

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