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Campaign finance reformers hope Maine's electioneering ban is used as a model in other states

Protesters attend a news conference to show there support for overriding Gov. Janet Mills' veto of a bill that would have banned entities owned by foreign governments from influencing Maine elections, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The bill was inspired by Hydro-Quebec's vast spending to convince Maine voters to defeat referendums that would sink Central Maine Power's controversial transmission project.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
Protesters attend a news conference to show there support for overriding Gov. Janet Mills' veto of a bill that would have banned entities owned by foreign governments from influencing Maine elections, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The bill was inspired by Hydro-Quebec's vast spending to convince Maine voters to defeat referendums that would sink Central Maine Power's controversial transmission project.

Maine on Tuesday became the 10th state to prohibit foreign-owned entities from spending big money on state referendum elections. Campaign finance reformers hope the overwhelming support for Question 2 will prompt other states to follow suit.

Well over 80% of Maine voters approved of Question 2, an electioneering ban on foreign government-owned corporations that have spent tens of millions of dollars trying to influence referendum outcomes, including $14.5 million just this year.

Efforts to pass the law were initially triggered two years ago when Hydro-Quebec, a government-owned company, spent $10 million to defend a controversial transmission project through western Maine.

Aaron McKean, legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., says the lopsided approval of Question 2 in Maine might inspire other states to pursue similar bans even if they aren’t currently facing the same issue.

"They don't have to wait for a problem like massive foreign spending in their elections to actually happen before taking those measures," he said.

The Campaign Legal Center backed Question 2 and the proposals that preceded it because it closes a loophole in federal election law that bans foreign entities from spending on candidate elections, yet allows donations to influence local and state ballot measures.

In passing Question 2, Maine joins with states such as Idaho, Colorado, Florida and Maryland that now prohibit such spending in some manner.

Minnesota has passed a more sweeping proposal that bans electioneering by all foreign-owned companies, not just those owned by foreign governments. It will be up to other states to decide how to craft such prohibitions, but McKean says they'll likely enjoy broad political support.

"We're talking about how voters have a right to democratic self-governance and being able to decide these issues for themselves without interference," he said. "And that is an overriding theme with a lot of these campaign finance measures that are focused on foreign interference."

But despite their popularity, bans on foreign electioneering are encountering resistance.

Business groups argue that such laws unfairly restrict political speech and sideline companies from referendums that affect them.

A new law in Minnesota is being legally challenged by that state's chamber of commerce.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce opposed Question 2, but has not said whether it will challenge its constitutionality in court.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.

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