Welcome to my nightmare: Unraveling the mess of donors to Maine’s referendum campaigns

It was a waking nightmare Halloween weekend. At the grisly hour of midnight Friday, ballot question groups and others filed terrifyingly dark election finance reports.


The reports really were dark — as dark as they’d ever been.

Nonprofit “dark money” groups who are not required to disclose their donors continued to give most of the cash coming into the registered campaigns. And those registered campaigns — ballot question committees or political action committees — are required to report their donors (which can be opaque nonprofits, but still…).

In some cases, the ballot question groups have direct ties to the nonprofit financial backer.

But the filings were dark for another reason: double-vision and what we’ll call the Ghost of Campaign Contributions Past.

More boringly, I mean double-counting of contributions. It was a problem I wrestled with in the latest reports, primarily because the nature of groups supporting and opposing each ballot question is so different.

For instance: Ten different groups registered to support raising Maine’s minimum wage to $12 (Question 4) and another six registered to support a 3 percent surtax on taxable income over $200,000, per filer (Question 2).

And some of the groups supporting Question 4 and Question 2 — they’re the same.

Oh, the webs we weave. 

Rather, let me illustrate the horrifying picture with a series of colorful bubbles. What we have below shows all contributions to groups supporting or opposing either of the questions, broken out to two levels of detail: the registered opponent or supporter getting the money and the type of donor that gave that amount.

What you can see is that a few of the campaigns have a little more streamlined structure than others — say, with just one registered ballot question committee.

The point here is, there’s not an easy one-size-fits-all way to analyze these ballot question campaigns.

Partly seeking sympathy, I called the National Institute on Money in State Politics, where I’ve turned before for campaign reporting advice.

The institute processes state-level campaign finance data, refining it and adding more detail to it, allowing someone to break down campaign financing by new dimensions, such as the industries employing a batch of donors.

Denise Roth-Barber, the group’s executive director, said it’s a challenge they face, as well.

“When we are establishing total money raised [in a campaign], we remove the double-counting to the extent that we can identify it,” Roth-Barber said.

That involves looking at committee-to-committee transfers, determining whether money was passed on like a campaign bucket brigade and subtracting each time that money passed through different hands.

Looking at the problem another way — well, it looks kind of like a DNA profile. And what kind of mutant have we here?

What I mean to say is that plotting contributions by date shows part of the difficulty of the problem, too. Below, I’ve broken out contributions to each support or opposition group by date, racing to the most recent period, at the bottom.

Multiple groups have connected donations right up through some of the final periods in the campaign.

Hovering over those final periods, you can see where, for instance, under Question 5, the Chamberlain Project ballot question committee got its first donation from the affiliated Chamberlain Project political action committee.

On Oct. 19, the group got another infusion from the registered supporter Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, an amount that would be counted twice in totals, as with other contributions between groups registered to support or oppose the question.

Those donations did not fall to a filter blocking the most obvious double-counting offenders: contributions from one ballot question committee to another.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics combs those amounts out of totals but does not remove those contributions from their database, preferring to reflect the full chain of contributions, even if that means the total is overestimated.

All this and I haven’t even gotten to the worst part of the nightmare. Not only are affiliated groups registered to advocate for the same position on the same question, some of those groups are registered to advocate on multiple questions.

The point: Democracy is messy and so is campaign finance disclosure.

That dynamic means we have to craft a fairly imperfect solution to the problem: divide up contributions to those groups evenly across the various ballot questions.

That can lead to other problems. The last time we did this, we let readers explore more detail on individual donors to each of the questions.

Understandably, I got a few calls expressing some dismay that — by this system — a donor who gave $180 in the name of supporting one question would show up as having given $60 to support three different questions. I decided to avoid that this time around and not break the donations down by individual donors.

But it’s also those phone calls that, around this season, wake me just slightly and fill me with gratitude.

That’s because I don’t experience an even more terrifying nightmare this campaign season: having to spin and spin the same exact talking points over and over again to reporters like me, and to crowds of various sizes in various towns, and to myself at night, before I go to bed, to make sure I don’t mess up a single word when the mic is hot.

Now that is horrifying.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.