Dark money hearing shows problems: We have solutions

The rise of dark money in our electoral process poses urgent and important questions for Americans. Who is behind the ads that voters see and hear in elections? Why all the secrecy? To whom are our elected officials accountable once they make it to the state Capitol or to Washington, DC?

Yesterday, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) brought together witnesses from across the political spectrum to discuss the issue of dark money at a Senate Rules Committee hearing.

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These witnesses explained that “dark money” – or undisclosed donations to political campaigns from political nonprofits –are a huge problem. They lamented the impact that dark money is having on our government, and called for the need to trace the root of these undisclosed political contributions.
Few Americans doubt there is a problem. And many despair that the problem is so big as to be unfixable.

In King’s own home state of Maine, we’re hardly immune to the problems of dark money or the larger problem of big-money influence in elections and government. But the citizens of Maine are taking the lead to preserve and strengthen our democracy to make sure that our representatives remain accountable to everyday Maine people.

At the top of the Maine agenda is to restore the nation's first and most successful public financing law for state offices after it sustained damage from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Approved by Maine voters in 1996, Maine's Clean Election Act provides qualified candidates the opportunity to run for office without taking money from special interests, instead relying only on local voters for $5 contributions. The program has been successful since its inception, but today suffers from declining participation and decreasing viability.

The weakening of Clean Elections in Maine stems from one of the Court’s controversial 5-4 rulings in which the majority overturned a key part of Arizona’s Clean Election system. Attempts to strengthen it have been met with state budget raids, gubernatorial vetoes, and legislation action and inaction, further diminishing the law. And restoring Clean Elections is complicated by all of the Court’s other campaign finance rulings that together have created new avenues for big money to flood campaigns and allowed for the shell game that shields big donors from the public eye.

In this era of unlimited outside money, citizens have begun work on a second Clean Election initiative that will strengthen Clean Elections, increase transparency, and improve accountability.

A strong and viable Clean Election system is the best way to fight back against big money. When candidates opt in to this system, corporations, special interests, and lobbyists can’t put money directly in the hands of candidates and expect special access after Election Day. And because all the contributions are disclosed, the system is transparent and voters know exactly where their politicians are getting their donations.

At its peak, more than 80 percent of legislators were elected after using Clean Elections. And they were from all parties and all parts of the state. Imagine that: four out of five legislators spent their campaigns listening to voters, not dialing for dollars.  Accountable to voters, not donors.

The citizens of Maine are fighting back to prevent a big money comeback that undermines the integrity of Maine's elections. We must have a way to combat the unlimited dark money flooding our campaign system from unaccountable wealthy donors and corporations. We’re putting forward common-sense reforms that put voters, not donors at the rightful center of elections and government. And we’re going to shine the light on dark money so that voters know who is trying to influence their vote.

We need solutions to the problems of money in politics. We applaud every lawmaker who attempts to tackle them: King for the Real Time Transparency Act, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) for the Fair Elections Now Act, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) for the Government By the People Act, and all of those who have called for a constitutional amendment to undo the Court’s damage.

Meanwhile, Maine people are stepping up to fulfill our state motto: Dirigo, or I lead.  

We’re working together to collect 70,000 signatures needed to go to ballot, so voters can enact reforms that keep government accountable to them, not wealthy special interests. We will fight for a government that is truly of, by, and for the people by ensuring that we have a campaign finance system that puts people first.

Bossie is the executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

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