How Empathetic Organizing Expanded our Partnership - Open Maine

How Empathetic Organizing Expanded our Partnership

In January 2022, Maine lawmakers introduced a local election transparency bill requiring municipal candidates and PACs in the state’s three largest cities to disclose their campaign finance reports to the public.

The proposal was a response to national groups spending big money to kill ballot measures in Portland, Maine during the 2020 November election cycle.

At the time, Portland’s municipal clerks, the understaffed city government office tasked with administering local elections, did not have the necessary technology to effectively report this spending to the public. The clerks’ workaround was to scan and post hundreds of paper forms onto the city website, which were filled with reporting errors, inaccuracies and illegible handwritten information.

By March 2022, the election transparency bill passed the Maine House and Maine Senate with bipartisan support. However, the proposal was rejected due to an opaque $1 million estimate to upgrade Maine’s legacy campaign finance software system to include local races. The exorbitant estimate was provided by Civix, a big tech firm that built and currently maintains the legacy system.

Partnering for Change

After the bill failed, Open Maine brigade members held several informational meetings with the Maine Town and City Clerk Association (MTCCA) legislative policy chairwoman Patti Dubois to understand how we could support clerks’ efforts to increase local election transparency.

Through our discussions, it became clear we shared a mission to revitalize and implement the goals laid out in the election transparency bill. But to do so, Ms. Dubois explained we needed to connect with clerks across Maine to introduce our partnership and garner their support.

In July, with the help of Ms. Dubois, we developed an organizing strategy. Our plan was to request local candidate and committee’s historic campaign finance documents from multiple municipal clerks’ offices. These requests would help us introduce our partnership’s project to new clerks, while also providing us with vital data to test, build and iterate an MVP.

Before launching our outreach plan, Open Maine engaged Code for America Sr. Partnership Manager Mellina Stoney. Together, we developed a one-page project overview, which we attached to each official document request. The one-pager centered clerks’ struggles, demonstrating our desire for long-term collaboration past this initial project.

The plan worked well. Document requests typically take months to fulfill, but the six Maine clerks we contacted responded to our requests within a week. More importantly, the requests sparked meaningful conversations about how we can deepen our partnership.

Today, Open Maine is working with clerks in seven different Maine cities. Our goal is to partner with clerks in at least three more cities by the end of the Impact Sprint Program. If our partnership is successfully maintained, we will enhance election transparency for more than 375,000 Maine citizens.

Transforming Outrage into Impact

There are municipal clerks tirelessly working in almost every town and city in the country. Open Maine believes there is a huge opportunity for Code for America brigades to leverage our partnership model and develop impactful collaborations with clerks’ offices in their own communities.

Here are a few takeaways from our partnership building experience that could be helpful:

  • Invest significant time upfront listening to your partner’s problems
  • Develop a shared mission with concrete goals both parties can work towards
  • Create a one-page overview demonstrating commitment to the partnership
  • Show short-term progress that builds momentum towards your long-term shared mission
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Congrats Open Maine! I loved your approach to engaging in conversations with Maine public service workers. It is a reminder that non-public service workers can still contribute to the advancement of our cities! Throughout your post, I could feel that the Opean Maine team appreciates City Clerk’s role as election officials and is creating a process that compliments their work.

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Thanks so much, Karen. Appreciate that. Lots more clerk work to do!