- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A non-partisan group launched a campaign Tuesday to sway voters to say “yes” to a November ballot issue they say will level the playing field between publicly and privately financed candidates.

The Mainers for Accountable Elections Coalition said they will blanket the state over the next couple of months in support of the measure, which also would increase fines for campaign finance law breakers and require groups to disclose some donors on political ads.

The group wants to strengthen the state’s Clean Election law, which provides public funds to candidates running for governor and the Legislature.

The law was the target of a repeal issue recently that legislators, about 50 percent of whom use public funds for their political campaigns, failed recently to refer to the ballot.

The proposal doesn’t yet face any formal opposition, but members of the coalition said they’re preparing for a battle as they gathered outside the Statehouse holding signs that read “Take back control of our elections” and “Democracy is not for sale.”

“Make no doubt about it, there are groups that want to have more sway and more access to our lawmakers than everyday people and they are going to be the ones that come in here and try to distort what this campaign is about,” said Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.

The Clean Election law is designed to encourage people who couldn’t otherwise afford to run for office to do so and to limit the influence of special interest groups in state government. Opponents say the state shouldn’t be bankrolling candidates when so many other priorities, such as schools, are competing for public funds.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key piece of the law in 2011 that allows candidates to increase their campaign coffers when they are being outspent. Since then, fewer candidates have chosen to participate in the Clean Election program because of concerns they will be pummeled at the polls by their privately financed opponents.

The coalition-supported proposal would allow Clean Election candidates to qualify for additional public dollars. For example, gubernatorial candidates could get as much as $3 million, up from the current $1 million.

It also would allow the state to fine groups that violate campaign finance laws up to 100 percent of the amount spent illegally. Marilyn Canavan, former executive director of the Maine Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said the largest fine the state has levied against a violator was 2.5 percent of the improperly spent funds.

The measure “will send a clear message to out-of-state groups and special interest groups trying to skirt Maine campaign finance laws and buy our elections that Mainers mean business,” Canavan said.


Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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