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Maine's Clean Elections law needs to be restored

By Ben Cohen
updated 2:12 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • About a billion dollars will be spent by special interests on midterm elections
  • Ben Cohen: We don't want a government of, by and for fat cats and plutocrats
  • He says Maine's Clean Elections system promotes public funding, democracy
  • Cohen: The Clean Elections Initiative helps take out big money out of politics

Editor's note: Ben Cohen is the co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and the founder of the StampStampede.org campaign, whose goal is to help build the movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- $1.3 billion is enough money to buy the Los Angeles Lakers or a big stake in the U.S. government.

That's just about the amount candidates and special interest groups backed by global corporations, billionaires and millionaires will spend on political ads before Election Day in an attempt to sell you America's Next Top Congressman.

As big money floods the midterms, it drowns out the voices of "we the people." Maine's Republican State Sen. Ed Youngblood gets it.

Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen

He writes, "As money in politics increases, the role of the general public in our democracy diminishes, more and more citizens feel their vote does not matter, and fewer are compelled into public service."

That's exactly what's happening.

With just days left to go before the November 4 election, only about 15% of Americans are closely paying attention to it. The rest of us -- the sane ones -- have just tuned it out. But we shouldn't be joking. Big money has diminished our most important and fundamental right as American citizens: the right to vote. The result is a government of, by and for fat cats and plutocrats.

There is another way. Just look northeast to Youngblood's great state of Maine.

Besides potatoes, blueberries and lobster, the Pine Tree State boasts Clean Elections.

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This system of publicly financed elections makes it easier for citizens to run for elected office, especially those who lack membership in the Millionaires Club. After the Clean Elections law (first in the nation) was enacted in 2000, the number of female candidates increased, with 84% of women who ran for public office citing it as very or somewhat important in their decision to run. Maine also saw a huge drop in the average number of uncontested races -- from 31 to three -- as well as a surge in voter turnout that continues to outpace the national average.

By 2008, more than 80% of candidates in Maine were running their campaigns with public funding, without any special interest money. The law was praised and used by Democrats and Republicans. For once, everybody seemed to agree on something.

After a decade of success, the Clean Election system was hit by a rash of bad news -- damaging court decisions, severe budget cuts, legislative action and inaction, gubernatorial vetoes, etc. All of these things severely weakened the system. Publicly funded candidates could no longer compete against opponents who were backed by big donors and special interest groups. This year, only 51% of candidates in Maine are using public funding.

But Mainers are fighting like junkyard dogs to take back their elections. A citizen-led Clean Elections initiative is underway that includes measures to strengthen Clean Elections and increase transparency and accountability in campaign finance laws. It's good policy, timely and important.

Hundreds of Maine residents have mobilized, working to restore and fully fund the Clean Elections law. Grassroots supporters have collected more than 15,000 signatures to ensure a Clean Elections initiative is on the ballot in 2015. On Election Day, nearly 1,000 volunteers will staff polling places across the state to collect the necessary signatures from fellow Mainers to ensure that they have the opportunity to demand Clean Elections from the voting booth next year.

In many other states, we don't have the opportunity to voice our frustrations about big money in politics at the ballot box, but we can still send a message to Washington.

That's why I started StampStampede.org. It's a way for anybody, anywhere, anytime to turn his or her money into media by rubber stamping it with messages such as "Not to be Used for Bribing Politicians" and "Stamp Money Out of Politics."

So long after Election Day, we can keep (legally) decorating our dollars to help build a nationwide, grassroots movement to get big money out of politics. That's what I'll be doing. But our friends in Maine will do more.

I applaud Youngblood and all of the good citizens who will be at the polls, rain or shine, to greet fellow voters on Election Day. They won't settle for a diminished Clean Election system -- they're fighting hard to make it strong.

Their work on the Clean Elections Initiative is grassroots democracy in action.

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