Last week, I submitted to the Maine Legislature a bill entitled,“An Act to Limit to Natural Persons the Right to Contribute to Political Campaigns.” This bill closely tracks the Montana "Corrupt Practices Act,” which was upheld on December 30, 2011 by the Montana Supreme Courtin the Western Tradition Partnership case. The ruling reinforced the “compelling interest” underlying the State’s ban on corporate political donations dating back to 1912.
In the wake of the two year anniversary of the controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, there is no doubt that this bill’s timing could be seen as symbolic. Some in Maine are already arguing that this is an attempt to bolster my own campaign against Olympia Snowe, who even opposed the DISCLOSE Act, for the United States Senate.
Let me be clear, I submitted this legislation because it is one of the best things the Maine legislature can do to ensure the legitimacy of our State’s elections. Certainly, just two short years after the Supreme Court’s misguided decision, the harmful effects are being more fully realized by the American people. I am pleased to see Mainers overwhelmingly reject the notion that corporations are entitled to all the rights of actual human beings.
The timing of introduction of my bill has everything to do with the timing of the recent decision by the highest court in Montana. Less than a month ago, Montana’s Supreme court held that banning corporate political donations does not violate the First Amendment as interpreted in Citizens United, but rather protects the integrity of elections. In other words, the Montana law was reviewed in light of the ruling in Citizens United and was held to pass muster under that case.
Should Maine adopt the same language as the Montana statute, given the similarities of our small, mostly rural population and resource-based economies, we can look to our State’s courts to reach similar conclusions. Enacting the law in Maine now, during the current session of the Maine legislature, would enable it to take effect before voters go to the polls this November.
Maine has a history of supporting efforts to ensure free and fair elections. Notably, voters overwhelmingly approved the Maine Clean Election Act in 1996, making Maine the first state in the nation to establish a program for public financing of elections. Since 2000, candidates for the State Senate and House have been able to run elections uncorrupted by the influence of big-money special interests. According to Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the nonpartisan organization that works in the public interest to advocate for and defend the Maine Clean Election Act, more than 80% of the current legislature was elected using the Clean Elections system.
In each of my three campaigns for the Maine Legislature, I have opted to run as a Clean Elections candidate. I will continue to both defend the system and support efforts to remove the influence of big-money special interests in our state’s elections. Moreover, in my campaign, I strongly advocate for comprehensive campaign finance reform. Should I have the opportunity to represent Maine voters in Washington, I would support a Federal version of Maine’s elections law. Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has already introduced such legislation, and I will strongly support it in the United States Senate.
Before we can make concerted efforts at the Federal level, however, I have an obligation to my constituents in Maine to be their voice in the halls of the State House. I would hope all elected officials, regardless of their political affiliation, want to see our elections determined by living, breathing voters, what in law are called “natural persons,” rather than faceless corporations.
Corporations are not people, and elections are not auctions where the office goes to the highest bidder. The law does not prohibit any person who is a shareholder, employee, or member of any corporation from making voluntary contributions to political campaigns and candidates. Barring corporations from making political donations will help to ensure that the voices of ordinary voters are heard.
Even conservative Justice James C. Nelson, who was appointed by Republican Governor Marc Racicot in 1993, conceded in an obviously reluctant dissent:
Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government…Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.
We all share an interest in the integrity of fair and clean elections. It benefits all of us to overcome the widespread perception that politicians can be bought and sold like race car drivers who whose corporate sponsors are emblazoned on their jackets. I am hopeful that a majority of all Maine legislators, no matter their partisan affiliation, will want to keep the influence of big money at bay.
Reversing the baleful impact of the Citizens United ruling and instituting effective election reform will not be accomplish quickly, but the longer we wait, the more entrenched these corrupting influences will become. We must act now.
Jon Hinck is the Ranking Member of the Legislature’s Committee on Energy. Before serving in the Maine Legislature, Hinck was among the co-founders of Greenpeace, USA and worked as staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. During his legal career, Hinck successfully represented commercial fishermen after the Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill and, later, Maine well owners harmed by MTBE groundwater contamination. Hinck is seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Olympia Snowe this November.
Log on to www.JonHinck.com for more information.