Maine has a history of leading on election fairness, accountability, and transparency. Our public campaign financing and reporting system makes it possible for elected officials to only be beholden to voters, not to wealthy special interests. This tradition began when Maine voters overwhelmingly passed a first-in-the-nation clean election law in 1996 — the Maine Clean Elections Act.

Since then it has been used by Democratic, Republican, Green, and unenrolled candidates alike — all who believe power belongs with the people, and that democracy is served best when voters, not big money have the candidate’s ear.

Under the Maine Clean Elections Act, undue influence is avoided because candidates can only accept a very limited amount in private donations, and must demonstrate community support by collecting small donations from their constituents to the Maine Clean Election Fund. Once qualified, candidates receive a fixed amount of funding for their primary and general election based on whether it is a contested race. Originally, publicly funded candidates would receive matching money if they were being dramatically outspent by their privately funded opponent. 

In 2011, because of a perverse U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Maine’s Clean Election Law was amended to remove the matching fund component — dramatically weakening Maine’s Clean Election Law. Now ultra-wealthy special interests can too easily influence the outcome of campaigns. When that happens it compromises the voice and free speech of Mainers. It is time for Maine people to take back control of our elections.

This November, with a referendum question on the ballot, there’s a chance to do exactly that: Passing Question 1 would strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act and increase transparency so voters know who is spending money to influence our elections.

Here is what voting “YES” on Question 1 will do:

Reduce the power of big money in our elections. Reform our campaign finance laws and limit the influence special interests can have on elected officials. Ensure people we elect represent everyone — not just wealthy campaign contributors.

Increase transparency and disclosure. Require special interest groups to list their top three donors on all political ads so that voters know immediately who is paying for the ads.

Increase accountability. Toughen penalties and fines for candidates and special interest groups that break our campaign finance laws. Currently Maine’s penalties are too small and some wrongdoers just consider the fines a cost of doing business. Question 1 increases penalties and fines up to 100 percent of what the wrongdoer spent on the election.

Prevent corruption. Require the governor-elect to disclose contributions from lobbyists and special interests that pay for inaugural parties or gifts between the election and taking office.

Fully fund Maine clean elections. Public funding to keep public officials responsible to everyone is a better investment of taxpayer dollars than corporate tax loopholes identified by OPEGA as poor investments of taxpayer dollars. Question 1 would require closing such loopholes to fully fund clean elections.

A “yes” on Question 1 in November would put control of elections back in the hands of everyone and restore trust. Mainers deserve politicians who are only accountable to us. A “no” on Question 1 would say you like things the way they are now.

Senator Johnson lives in Somerville and represents Maine Senate District 13, which covers all of Lincoln County, except for Dresden, as well as Washington in Knox County, and Windsor in Kennebec County.