The upcoming Better Elections Initiative will be on the November ballots thanks to Alaska citizens, who delivered tens of thousands of signatures to guarantee its spot on the 2020 ballot. Alaskans are highly engaged in self-government, and that’s why they’re determined to take back control of their state from wealthy outside special interests.
The majority of Alaskans want open primaries, disclosure of campaign finance funding, ranked-choice voting and support the American Promise Amendment — a measure that would give Alaska and every other state the legal authority to control state elections.
Alaskans care a great deal about civic matters and how to govern this big, beautiful state. Alaska is a new state, lightly populated and a place where state, local and federal government decisions have a significant impact on how we live.
Historically, individual Alaskans have been vitally involved in governmental decision-making. Citizens wrote the Alaska Constitution in the 1950s. A citizen legislature enacted the laws that govern our state in the 1960s.
But, starting in the early 1980s, the infusion of huge amounts of oil revenue into the Alaska economy transformed the dynamics of our state politics. Large corporate and institutional interests began to dominate public decision-making in the political sphere.
As a result, laws designed to limit the influence of corporate and other institutional interests and balance the power of political campaign spending were enacted in Alaska.
To a degree, the limits worked by keeping a rough parity between votes, information and campaign spending in a manner that helped facilitate democratic decision-making. But through persistent efforts by large institutional entities, Alaska’s fundamentally democratic institutions were gradually eroded.
In this new political Wild West, the voices of lawyers, lobbyists and political fat cats often dominate civic discussion and political decision-making. Because Alaskans are independent, and prickly in some situations, we don’t like being told what to do and how to do things, especially by Outside interests with an agenda that doesn’t work for those of us living in the Last Frontier. That’s why Alaskans from around our state worked together to enact sensible limits on campaign donations.
Alaska’s reasonable campaign financing limits were tossed aside by the United States Supreme Court a decade ago with disastrous results. The court’s decision in Citizens United was an odd, one-size-fits-all decision that overreached traditional constitutional analysis.
The decision ignored our legitimate concerns as a state and removed long-standing campaign financing standards, allowing interests from Outside Alaska to dominate our elections.
As a result, outside corporations have an inordinate influence in our politics to the point where many Alaskans wonder whether our state is becoming a resource colony essentially governed according to the whims and decrees of business interests located in Miami, Seattle and Texas.
All of us have heard the old bromide about how money in politics is not all that important, and that it somehow represents a simple First Amendment right to express oneself. The reality, on the ground all over the country, including in Alaska, is that big money matters and that money often trumps any other inputs in contemporary political decision-making.
Our elected officials spend an inordinate amount of time begging for money to get elected or reelected. Few Alaskans believe a visit to their elected official with good information and a pleasant request for action is going to displace the view of a corporate entity that has marshalled big contributions to that official.
Our democracy in the Last Frontier is being corroded by the influence of big money.
We need a renewal of citizen participation in Alaska and every other portion of our union. In Alaska and other places, good ideas based on solid values are consigned to oblivion in our political decision-making because some narrow interest with vast resources puts in the fix.
It’s easy to be cynical, but there is genuine hope that Alaskans and Americans will continue this wonderful constitutional experiment that began in 1787 by amending the U.S. Constitution, so that individual states like Alaska are allowed to set appropriate campaign standards.
Voting to support the Better Elections Initiative this November is a good first step in returning control of our democratic institutions to the citizens of Alaska.
• Joe Geldhof is a Juneau lawyer and a citizen leader for American Promise.