As voters, we exercise our democratic right by registering to vote and showing up on election day. It’s one of the few places remaining where every citizen’s voice is equal. And in many of our towns, we still exercise that voice and vote in person at town meetings. It’s a New England tradition of democracy at the community level. I’m pleased to have played a role in this process by moderating town meetings for more than a decade.
But elsewhere in our electoral process, individual opportunity to have an equal voice has not fared as well, and we need to fix that. The amount of money spent on elections has long been a concern for Maine people. In 1996, Mainers passed a citizen-initiated referendum to set up a voluntary public financing system for state election candidates, to try to limit spending, and the influence of special interests contributing to political campaigns.
A critical part of Maine’s “clean election” system was a provision that allowed candidates using it to get matching funds for campaign spending against them by outside groups. This system worked well, with 80 percent of the candidates for the Maine House, Senate and governor participating in 2008.
Then, as George Orwell wrote in his political satire, "Animal Farm," some voters became “more equal than others.” In a 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United said that money spent on campaigns is the same as free speech, and limiting it is unconstitutional.
In effect, that majority opinion says we all have the right to free speech, but those with more money can purchase more of it. A second Supreme Court decision ruled that it is unconstitutional for states that have publicly funded elections to match funding from outside groups.
Taken together these two rulings have devastated Maine’s citizen-driven clean election system, and spurred tremendous growth in campaign spending, both nationally and here in Maine. In this year’s election I was one of only 52 percent of eligible candidates that chose to run as a clean election candidate.
We must take action to give all voters an equal voice in elections and to restore faith in the electoral process. There are three things we can do: strengthen Maine’s Clean Election law; implement “ranked choice voting,” so people can vote their hopes, not their fears; and amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Citizen’s United decision.
First, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has started a petition process to strengthen our Clean Elections law. The law on the ballot initiative would restore and fully fund Maine’s Clean Elections, require top donors to be listed in political ads, and increase penalties for those violating campaign-finance laws. It’s a good sense measure to make Maine’s election process fairer and more transparent.
Second, our election outcomes should accurately reflect which candidate has the most support among voters. Ranked choice voting allows voters to indicate their first and second (or more) choices in an election. They can “vote their conscience” while knowing their choices will count and that the process will ensure that a majority of the voters prefer the winner. This system better reflects the will of the people in races with more than two candidates and is cost effective.
I’ve submitted a bill request to implement ranked choice voting for Maine’s legislative and gubernatorial elections. A group of citizens is also gathering petition signatures to put the question before voters.
Lastly, we need a federal constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United by allowing state and federal regulation of campaign spending. The premise is simple: money is not speech, and corporations are not people. There is a Maine citizen’s initiative petition effort underway for this as well.
So if you’re fed up with the role of money in our elections, you can help change it: sign the petitions; work on the citizen’s initiatives; and spread the word. Let’s work together to make sure that the wealthy aren’t “more equal than others.” Everyone deserves an equal vote, an equal voice, and an equal chance to participate in our democracy.
Sen. Chris Johnson lives in Somerville.