Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Fewer Blue-Collar Lawmakers in Maine’s Legislature: Public Financing Cut by the U.S. Supreme Court on Free Speech Grounds

In 1996, Maine became the first American state to enact a public financing system for statewide elections. Voters passed a referendum by which the government provides money to candidates who meet a threshold of fundraising in $5 increments from voters in their districts. Before 2011, candidates got matching funds from the government if an opponent was funding his or her campaign with their own money, or if an outside group was spending money on the race over a certain amount.[1] The reason for the discontinuance of the matching funds and the subsequent impact on the number of blue-collar people running for office and being in the legislature demonstrate that the public financing of political campaigns can have a huge impact on both political campaigns and representation in a legislative chamber.

By 2008, 85 percent of lawmakers in the Maine legislature were running with public funds. Passage of the referendum allowed waitresses, teachers, firefighters, convenience store clerks and others to run for office and win. Women benefited especially, running in greater numbers than had been possible before. Thanks to public funding, Maine soon had the most blue-collar legislature in the U.S. The gap between Maine’s citizens and their representatives was effectively narrowed.

Historically, the American Founding Fathers knew that the legislatures of the member-states were closer to the people—and not just geographically—than the U.S. House of Representatives. Hence, some delegates at the Constitutional Convention decried the aristocratic nature of the proposed U.S. House. For one thing, the legislative districts of a state representative are smaller. Partly for this reason, citizen-legislators would be more likely. By design, the total number of legislators at the state level dwarfs the number of representatives in the U.S. House. The Founders thus understood that the vast repository of self-governance in the “extended republic” and the republics within would be mostly in the state legislatures. Hence, most authority over domestic matters was constitutionally assigned to the states, with the governmental institutions at the federal level enjoying only limited, or enumerated, powers. The impact of Maine’s referendum suggests that representative democracy has greater potential at the state level than at the federal level. To be sure, Madison’s theory that political minorities are less protected in smaller republics represents a downside to state government relative to federal. However, the greater presence of blue-collar people in Maine’s legislature may mean that Madison’s theory need not apply, at least concerning economic minorities. Unfortunately, the Maine experiment was rather severely clipped in 2011.

Specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that providing public funds to match outside groups and self-funding candidates was a limit on their free-speech rights. Participation in Maine's public funding system dropped to 51 percent by the 2014 election. How increasing the money-as-speech of one person limits the free-speech of others is utterly perplexing to me, unless the context is of two people in close proximity using loudspeakers. At the very least, the American doctrine of free-speech had traversed a few curves—the 2010 Citizens United case being a major case in point.

Moreover, the court’s decision may point to a basic bias in the American political elite in favor of great wealth. Corporate donors would quite naturally want to squash the influx of blue-collar lawmakers—preferring instead “professional” politicians intent on being re-elected. My basic point is that public financing can have a huge impact not only on campaigns, but also on the composition of legislatures. That is to say, Americans need not assume that “deep pockets” entrenched in the status quo necessarily enjoy the overwhelming advantage in representative democracy.

[1] Paul Blumenthal, “Maine Voters Hope to Restore Their Revolutionary Election System,” The Huffington Post, September 4, 2015.