I was raised in a very politically engaged family. For as long as I can remember, political discourse has been a focal point of our family dinners. When I took that same passion for politics with me to school, my peers stonewalled me. Nobody my age seemed to care in the slightest about the outside world.
One of my high school teachers put me in touch with an alumnus who was working on an initiative to increase youth engagement in politics. I spent a month in Washington, D.C., lobbying congressional offices to support a bill that would establish a council of young adults, ages 18 to 24, to advise the executive branch on matters that directly affect youth in America.
There, I got my first look inside the dirty world of politics in Washington.
In the 100 plus meetings I had on Capitol Hill that spring, I’m not sure any staffers looked up from their phones once. It was no wonder my peers had no interest in our government. It was clear our government had no interest in us. I didn’t represent a corporation or wealthy donor, and frankly I wasn’t too sure they had any reason to care about me at all.
I am sure I am not alone with this sentiment. At some point in time, we have all felt frustrated with our government. A representative democracy should listen to all of its citizens, not just the wealthy few who can afford to make campaign contributions. Unfortunately, that is not the case in America today.
Princeton professor Martin Gilens found that our government responsiveness to the public “is strongly tilted toward the most affluent citizens” and that “the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.” It is no wonder that only 19 percent of Americans trust their government, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study.
Thankfully, there is a solution, and it starts in Maine.
Around the time I was learning to walk, another budding initiative was taking off. In 1996, Mainers passed the Maine Clean Election Act, the first law of its kind anywhere.
Since the law was first implemented in 2000, the Clean Election Act has brought accountability, legitimacy and transparency to Maine’s government. It ensures that voters are listened to, and it forces candidates to get out and go door-to-door to meet the people they seek to represent. It ensures that all citizens will be heard.
The law has not been without its challenges. Over the past two decades, court decisions and funding cuts have weakened Clean Elections. But, every time Clean Elections come under distress, Mainers stand up with a strong showing of support. Last November, Mainers delivered a 10-point margin of victory on a citizen-initiated ballot measure to strengthen Clean Elections, leaving no question about the value and importance of this system to them.
It is time that our Legislature and governor respect the will of the voters who repeatedly have reaffirmed their support for the system. They need to fully fund Clean Elections. But let’s not stop there. Let’s close the loophole that allows privately financed candidates to raise unlimited money from corporations for their Political Action Committees. Let’s do everything we can to reduce the influence of money in politics and bring transparency to political spending. If we fail to do this, we will find ourselves with a system of government that is not accountable to the people, and that just isn’t acceptable.
Sitting here as a summer intern in Maine Citizens for Clean Elections office, I asked myself how I ended up here. I wasn’t born in Maine and neither was the notion that our government should be accountable to the people. Yet, here we are.
I, like so many others in Maine, have seen the incredible value of Maine’s Clean Elections system, and I am taking steps to ensure its continuation. I’m in it for the long haul. It’s time Maine’s elected officials make the same commitment.
Eric Carlson is a junior at Colby College and a Democracy Fellow with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.