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Maine clean elections law could provide model for the country

It’s not every day that politicians receive donations without asking for them.

But Maine’s governor, Paul LePage (R), was recently flagged down by one Mainer and handed a dollar bill. Why the dollar? Well, it was stamped in red ink with a message: Not To Be Used For Bribing Politicians.

Rubber stamping U.S. currency is a guerilla tactic of the grassroots campaign This Maine citizen’s offering was not a campaign contribution, but special delivery of an important message: It’s time to get big money out of politics.

{mosads}The Stampede is a visual demonstration against Big Money—a pointed way of raising awareness about the gobs of dough being spent on influencing today’s elections and politicians. Across the nation, more than 30,000 Americans are legally stamping their money with messages like the one given to the governor. Since every U.S. dollar is seen by hundreds of people over its time in circulation, these “Stampeders” are essentially saying, “If the Supreme Court has ruled that money is free speech, then we’re going to make our money scream.”

The majority of Maine, 86 percent, agrees that Big Money in politics has overwhelmed elections and drowned out ordinary citizens. And, Maine people have done more than almost anyone else to combat the problem. Passage of the citizen-initiated Clean Election Act in 1996 ushered in an era of publicly funded elections that earned the support of candidates and voters alike by giving qualified candidates a way to run viable campaigns without relying on large campaign contributions.

But, Governor LePage is not a big fan of Clean Elections. Once he read the dollar’s quip in red, he apparently “quickly passed it on.” It won’t be the first or last time he will be challenged on his opposition to publicly financed elections.

A recent poll shows 84 percent of Mainers in favor of the Clean Election Act. Mainers also support transparency and accountability in election laws. But with recent Supreme Court decisions rolling back campaign finance reforms nation-wide, more outside spending with less disclosure than ever before has flooded all political campaigns, and the Clean Elections system is less viable. After years of high participation in Clean Elections, candidates today find that they are less able to compete with well-funded opposition.

That means that as elections get pricier more of our politicians have to forego public funding, and paw at the door of millionaires to raise campaign cash. The voters who fuel Clean Elections campaigns with $5 contributions are no longer at the center of elections. But the people of the Pine Tree State are fighting back.

In the past few months, Republicans, Democrats, independents and Greens all came together to get an initiative on the ballot. If successful, this measure will increase transparency and raise penalties for candidates who break Maine’s campaign finance laws. And, it will restore Clean Elections.

More than 85,000 signatures were collected for the initiative to get on the ballot, and the Secretary of State announced this month that the initiative would go forward this year.  This is a big accomplishment for the grassroots effort that organized the initiative.

“So much about politics is about divisions, but in this Clean Election endeavor, we are Mainers first,” said Republican State Senator Ed Youngblood, who worked with the nonpartisan Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and nearly 1,000 volunteers to achieve this remarkable feat.

The initiative is the first step in restoring the weakened Clean Election Act, and the role of everyday voters within it. Ordinary Mainers willing to give $5 to candidates they support will once again be the most important donors in Maine.

While people everywhere are discouraged about money in politics, Mainers are proving that plenty can be done. They are bird-dogging their politicians with Stamp Stampede dollars, mobilizing fellow residents to raise awareness, and crossing the aisle to build bipartisan momentum for a big win in November.  

The vast majority of the country also wants to pull the plug on big money influencing Washington and state capitals. We must all take Maine’s lead and fight to put elections back in the hands of voters.

Cohen is co-founder of Ben & Jerry‘s Ice Cream.


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