Lawsuits in State Challenge Decision Restricting Foreign Influence in Local Elections

( – Maine has taken a strong stance against foreign election influence by closing a loophole in federal election law. The recent referendum, which received overwhelming support from voters, prohibits foreign entities from spending on local and state ballot measures.

Four organizations in Maine, including two utilities and two media organizations, have filed lawsuits to challenge the referendum. The Maine Press Association and the Maine Association of Broadcasters argue that the law creates a censorship restriction on news outlets, claiming that news organizations must now monitor campaign ads to ensure no foreign government influence.

Central Maine Power and Versant, the state’s largest electric utilities, have filed separate lawsuits questioning the law’s constitutionality. They argue that it infringes upon their freedom of speech and ability to engage on issues directly impacting them.

The Maine Commission on Government Ethics and Campaign Practices, responsible for reviewing federal complaints and consulting with the attorney general, finds itself caught in the middle. State Senator Rick Bennett, who spearheaded the effort to put the proposal on the ballot, expressed his disappointment with the lawsuits, emphasizing that they drown out the voices of Mainers who support the referendum.

The need for this referendum arose from a specific incident involving a Canadian government-owned utility, Hydro Quebec, which spent a staggering $22 million to influence a project in Maine. Despite legal challenges, the project moved forward, but the implications of foreign influence on referendum races in the state cannot be ignored.

The widely approved legislation now bars foreign governments and companies with over 5 percent government ownership by a foreign entity from contributing to state referendum races. This has implications for foreign entities and Maine-based utilities such as Versant, owned by Calgary in Canada, and Central Maine Power, which has foreign government interests.

Although Central Maine Power’s corporate parent, Avangrid, narrowly avoids falling under the law due to technicalities, the company contends that the law is constitutionally ambiguous. This argument is underscored by Qatar’s minority stake in Spain-based Iberdrola, the owner of Avangrid and Central Maine Power.

Before reaching voters, the referendum faced a veto from Democratic Governor Janet Mills, who expressed concerns about its broadness and potential impact on legitimate Maine-based business voices.

According to the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., Maine now joins nine other states in closing the election spending loophole, which supported the proposal. Senator Bennett acknowledged that similar laws in other states have withstood legal challenges, even if some definitions are more stringent than those in Maine.

In a somewhat ironic twist, Senator Bennett pointed out that it is illegal for any foreign individual or corporation to be involved in Canadian elections. Yet, Versant, one of the utilities filing a lawsuit, is exercising a right it does not have in its home country.

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