The Maine Ethics Committee voted 3-2 this week to investigate whether conservative political group ALEC is illegally trying to influence elections by providing lawmakers with a software package.
But the state’s Commission on Government Ethics and Electoral Practice also unanimously voted to reject a complaint that two Republican lawmakers had violated state campaign funding laws after discovering they had never used ALEC’s software for campaign purposes.
The commission’s votes on Wednesday follow a complaint from the Center for Media and Democracy, in the ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council – and lawmakers, Rep. Matt Harrington, R-Sanford, and Senator Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, of Accused of violation of the state are laws that require that donations in kind be included in a candidate’s regular campaign funding reports. The center has filed similar complaints in 11 other states as it targets ALEC, a Virginia-based nonprofit that writes laws that are then passed by conservative lawmakers in various states.
Some of ALEC’s laws have become law in Maine. In 2012, bills, largely authored by ALEC, authorized Maine’s first charter schools and then the first virtual charter schools. Several bills drafted by the ALEC that focused on education policy snaked their way through the Maine legislature, but few became law.
Critics of ALEC have cited its shadow funding and focus on business benefit and that it keeps the identities of its members a secret. The Center for Media and Democracy has argued with ALEC for decades, most recently over the software package at the center of the Maine dispute.
The center has also filed a whistleblower complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service alleging the organization violated its nonprofit status through efforts to influence elections that are prohibited by federal law. The complaint alleges that ALEC provides its 2,000 members, most of whom are Republican lawmakers, with data from a campaign provider affiliated with the Republican National Committee, and that the Data that ALEC members enter into the system goes directly to the RNC. ALEC does not provide similar information about democratic voters.
Harrington and Stewart are the state chairs of ALEC in Maine. Both lawmakers said they knew about the software that ALEC claims to help lawmakers manage citizen communications but said they did not use it.
Meanwhile, the Center for Media and Democracy, a left-wing nonprofit based in Madison, Wisconsin, which describes itself as the guardian of ALEC, argued that the software is a voter database that focuses on Republican voters and donors and is nearly identical to the campaign software is from Voter Gravity, who also developed the ALEC system. ALEC members get access to the system as part of their two-year membership fee of $ 100.
Stewart said Wednesday that the last time he logged into the system was in 2017 to see if it would be useful to Maine lawmakers. He said he decided it wasn’t.
“We realized it wasn’t going to work for us and it was,” said Stewart. Harrington said he received a demonstration of the software but never set up an account or password.
“I’m just an old school guy,” said Harrington. “I print out a list of voters and take notes.”
Jason Torchinsky, an attorney for ALEC, urged the ethics committee to dismiss the complaint in its entirety, saying there was no reason to suggest that access to the software alone would constitute a campaign contribution in kind.
He also accused the Center for Media and Democracy of getting the ethics committee to conduct a “fishing expedition” to find out which Maine lawmakers are members of ALEC.
“There is no indication that this software was ever used for campaign activities and that complaint should be dismissed today,” said Torchinsky. Torchinsky also stressed that those who access the software online must check off disclosures that say they will not use it for campaigning.
“This is like some kind of Rube Goldberg effort that you want to make here and I urge you to turn it down,” said Torchinsky.
However, Arn Pearson, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, said the software is identical to Voter Gravity software, which is sold to Republican candidates by a for-profit company, and is designed to help them track supportive voters and donors.
“You can give someone a loaded gun and tell them they can only use it as a paperweight, but you still gave them a loaded gun,” Pearson said. Pearson said ALEC raised more than $ 1.7 million for the program and promoted it as a “game changer” among members.
The commission, made up of two Democrats, two Republicans, and one Independent, voted 3-2 against the Republicans to have their staff investigate the software to see if it could be used for campaign purposes or not.
Commission chairman William Lee, a Democrat and attorney from Waterville, said the vote was not a finding that campaign finance laws have been violated, but an instruction to determine whether the ALEC software has any value and reported as a contribution in kind should be.
In its membership promotion, ALEC rates the software at $ 3,000. Maine’s campaign funding laws limit donations in kind to traditionally funded primaries and general election candidates to $ 400, which means anything beyond that would also violate state ethics laws.
Lee and the Commission’s other Democrat Sarah LeClaire from Woodland and her independent member Richard Marble from Hampden have voted for commission staff to review the ALEC CARE software and compare it to the Voter Gravity software before the commission opens the matter in October picks up again.
“There’s enough here to investigate further, there I am,” Lee said before the vote.
Republican commissioners, William Schneider, a former Maine attorney general from Durham, and David Hasting, a former Republican lawmaker from Fryeburg, opposed the decision.
“I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to suggest a violation, and I think this is a tremendous misuse of employee time,” said Schneider.
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