With the Maine Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the use of ranked choice voting for the presidential election in September and early voting numbers in the state shattering previous records, Maine voters have arguably never been more liberated with regards to how they vote and who they vote for. However, one major barrier to fair election processes, if such a thing exists, has reared its head during the 2020 election campaigns in particular: money.
Maine’s Senate race has been one of the most expensive in the entire country, with spending from the candidates and political action committees (PACs) reaching well over $100 million with a little over a week until election day. While this spending is, in a way, awe-inspiring, it is also troubling, especially considering that over 90% of the contributions to both of the major campaigns have come from out-of-state, specifically cities like Boston, New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College, told the Portland Press Herald that “While this race is about Sen. Collins and Speaker Gideon, it’s really just as much about the extent to which people in Maine and around the country don’t want Mitch McConnell to stay as leader in the Senate.”
Maisel also admits that part of the reason that parties and PACs spend so much money is that without it a candidate doesn’t seem as legitimate. As much as advertisements approved by the Gideon and Collins campaigns may tout the candidates’ commitment to Mainers, voters could be forgiven for feeling like a means to an end rather than valued and respected constituents.
During Thursday’s televised debate, sponsored by News Center Maine, both Collins and Gideon criticized each other for taking money from and favoring special interest groups. Gideon in particular suggested that “something I think we all agree with is that there is too much money in politics” and made a point of declaring that she had accepted no corporate PAC money over the course of the campaign. While Gideon may have made these statements in earnest, the fact of the matter is that both she and Collins have benefited greatly from the over $71 million that has been spent by PACs and super PACs during the Senate race, mostly on the attack ads that just about every Mainer with a computer or a television has seen a hundred times by now.
Lisa Savage, one of the two third-party candidates on the debate stage, made a far more simple but effective argument to viewers than either of the major party representatives: “I’m the only non-millionaire in this race.” Savage, an independent teacher from Solon, is campaigning on pennies, having raised a total of $174,709 by the end of September. Despite financial limitations, in debates she has delivered her progressive agenda with refreshing poise, notably handing her mic over to an activist with Black Lives Matter Maine to use the time for the candidate’s final remarks during Thursday’s debate.
While Savage and fellow longshot Max Linn both benefit from the institution of ranked choice voting, it is a far-cry from leveling the playing field and making space for voices outside of the two-party system. Sarah Gideon’s campaign platform, as it is described on her official website, includes important steps in effectively reforming campaign finance like passing an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, increasing financing transparency and banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists. Savage’s platform takes this in an even more progressive direction by arguing for limits on campaign spending across the board.
These aren’t new ideas, they aren’t even necessarily partisan. The battle for divesting money from politics dates back nearly two decades to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known for the judicial decision that resulted from it, Citizens United v. FEC, infamous for granting the freedom of speech (in the form of monetary contributions) to corporations. Now, in 2020, states like Maine, Kentucky, Iowa and South Carolina have become spending contests; less about candidates connecting with voters and more so about parties purchasing seats.
With that said, the situation is far from hopeless. Candidates and parties may be spending and raising more money than ever, but citizens in Maine and throughout the United States are taking advantage of different ways to engage in the electoral process. The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly half of all states have reported that early voting numbers are way ahead of those from the 2016 election, and for the first time Mainers will be able to vote for a third-party candidate without being worried about wasting their vote. The current system of campaign finance both devalues and underestimates the American voter, and there is no other way to change a fundamentally broken system than by involving fresh perspectives in that process. Voting is part of it, but being informed enough to know when a representative is selling out their constituents is a power and responsibility in and of itself.