Maine Question 2 addresses foreign spending in elections

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On Nov. 7, Maine voters will decide on Question 2, a ballot initiative to prohibit foreign governments, or entities with at least 5% foreign government ownership or control, from spending money to influence ballot measures or candidate elections.

The issue of foreign contributions to ballot measure campaigns was discussed during the 2021 election cycle when Maine voters approved Question 1, which prohibited the construction of electric transmission lines defined as high-impact in the Upper Kennebec Region, including the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), and required a two-thirds vote of each state legislative chamber to approve high-impact electric transmission line projects.

Hydro-Quebec, a government-owned enterprise of Québec, spent $19.9 million to oppose that initiative. If Question 2 had been in effect during the 2021 election cycle, it would have prohibited Hydro-Québec from contributing to opposition PACS campaigning against Question 1.

During the 2021 election cycle, 25 current and former state legislators sent a letter to Quebec Premier François Legault and Hydro-Québec CEO Sophie Brochu regarding “Hydro-Quebec’s political campaign aimed at influencing the outcome of a citizen-initiated ballot measure this November.” The legislators requested that Hydro-Québec cease campaign activities in Maine.

Serge Abergel, the director of external relations for Hydro-Québec, responded to the letter, stating that Hydro-Québec should be allowed to provide information to voters after spending years to obtain permits. Abergel said, “So once you want to take that away, at least give us the right to give the facts when it comes to us. We don’t view this as a loophole at all. We’re compliant to the rules, and we’re just trying here to give a straight story, so people can understand and make their own choices.”

In 2021, the Maine State Legislature passed LD 194, which was designed to prohibit contributions by foreign government-owned entities to influence ballot measures. The bill passed the Maine House of Representatives by 87-54 on June 14, 2021, and then passed the Maine State Senate by 23-11 on June 15, 2021. On June 24, 2021, Gov. Janet Mills (D) announced that she vetoed the bill, saying that “entities with direct foreign investment employ thousands of Mainers” and that “legislation that could bar these entities from any form of participation in a referendum is offensive to the democratic process, which depends on a free and unfettered exchange of ideas, information, and opinion.”

Maine Question 2 was cleared for signature gathering on Oct. 27, 2021. After submitting the required number of signatures, it was approved by both chambers of the state legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Mills on July 19, 2023, thereby sending the question to voters in November.

Currently, seven states prohibit foreign spending on ballot measure campaigns. California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington have passed laws or amendments as of 2023. Federal law addresses foreign spending in candidate elections but not ballot measure elections.

Additional reading: Maine Question 1, Electric Transmission Line Restrictions and Legislative Approval Initiative (2021)

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