AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Ethics Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday not to enforce certain campaign contribution limits in the governor’s race between now and the general election on Nov. 4.

The commission’s vote came after a decision last week by U.S. District Court Judge Brock Hornby in response to a lawsuit filed by four supporters of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.

The supporters argued — as Cutler long has — that contribution limits in Maine law are unfair to independent candidates. Major-party candidates are permitted to collect a total of $1,500 per individual for both the primary and general elections — meaning individual donors can give $3,000 total to major-party candidates during a full election cycle, even if the candidates do not face primary opponents.

Because independents do not participate in primary elections, their limits are $1,500 in any election year.

Cutler’s ability to collect $3,000 from each contributor was granted by the court last week, leaving the commission to decide whether donors to Democrat Mike Michaud and Republican Paul LePage could give a total of $3,000 for the full election cycle, regardless of whether they had designated their contributions as being for primary or general elections.

Wednesday’s decision eliminates the limits attached to the primary and general elections, which were previously $1,500 for each. The only rule that applies now is that individuals can donate no more than $3,000 to each candidate for the entire election cycle.

That means individual donors who have not yet contributed to Michaud’s or LePage’s campaigns can now give up to $3,000 before the general election. Before Wednesday’s commission vote, their contributions would have been capped at $1,500.

The commission, which was bound by the court to make a decision by the end of this week, decided it would allow those donations.

“Given the nature of the litigation and where we’re at, there’s not a lot more we can do,” said Walter McKee, chairman of the commission. “We have to honor the court’s ruling.”

The commission’s vote pertains only to the 2014 gubernatorial election. If there are to be permanent changes to Maine campaign finance laws — which are likely necessary, given the court’s ruling — they would have to be enacted by the Legislature.

Portland-based attorney Melissa Hewey, who represented Cutler’s four supporters in the lawsuit, told the commission on Wednesday that her clients agreed with its ruling.

“Essentially, my clients feel this is the fairest way to go, both for themselves and other donors,” she said. “This is the best way to make things understandable for people.”

Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, argued to the commission that the court ruling and commission vote fly against the state’s Clean Election laws, which are designed to minimize the influence of campaign donations in government. The individual limit for donors originally was set at $500 by a statewide vote in 1996.

“We have been longtime supporters of low contribution limits because we believe it allows more people to participate in our democracy,” said Bossie. “Maine people support low contribution limits.”

Hornby did not rule on constitutional questions raised by the plaintiffs in their suit. Instead, he issued a preliminary injunction against the state, ruling that the state must immediately allow Cutler’s supporters to donate up to $3,000.

For Cutler, the ruling means that if everyone who already has given $1,500 maxed out their donation, he could collect an additional $526,500 just from those donors.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.