Every fall break, the Columbia University Democrats bus out across the country, from Virginia to Ohio, on an annual campaign trip. In years past, we have helped elect governors and helped reelect presidents. But this year, we will take to the porches and street corners of Maine, not to support a candidate for election, but in the hopes of attaining an ideal—campaign finance reform.
To be sure, there is no shortage of important issues on ballots this fall—Kentucky will choose its governor, Philadelphia is voting for its new mayor, and Ohio will decide whether to legalize marijuana. So why, of all the places and issues, are we spending our fall break fighting for campaign finance reform in the ninth least populous state in the country?
Simply put, this single issue is bigger than any one election. As hard as it might be to believe, everything we care about—from student debt, to minimum wage laws, to women's health issues, and even deficit reduction—rests on the reform of our campaign finance system.
In our society, decisions are made by political figures elected through democratic processes. By design, these political figures should represent the citizens that elect them. Unfortunately, when money from wealthy and corporate donors is allowed to flood these processes, from ads to donations, politicians are left with little choice but to represent their wealthiest donors, often at the expense of their constituents.
In 1996, Maine was the first state in the nation to establish a system of publicly-funded elections. The Maine Clean Elections Act gave candidates in the state public funds for their campaigns, balancing the influence of private money through a first-of-its-kind system that minimized the influence of special interest groups and kept politicians accountable to the citizens of Maine.
Over the past five years, a barrage of court rulings has unraveled Maine's clean elections victory. Donations from special interest groups, most from outside Maine's borders, have skyrocketed. Dark money has inundated state campaigns. And in 2014, just 51 percent of campaigns in the state were publicly funded—compared to 80 percent in 2008.
Restoring Maine's clean election system and alleviating some of the worst fallout from these court rulings are the first steps to achieving campaign finance reform for the rest of the country. This initiative will increase transparency and accountability by requiring deep pocketed groups to disclose their top donors, tighten restrictions, toughen penalties for breaking campaign finance laws, and require that the Maine legislature fund the program by closing corporate tax loopholes.
Our country is on the brink of confronting an unbreakable feedback loop, one that permits an egregious expansion of inequality while rewarding only the constituents with the largest checkbooks. As of August, almost half of the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign came from fewer than four hundred families. And thanks to Citizens United, millionaires and billionaires have secreted unlimited sums of money into political organizations, with none of the public disclosure the Supreme Court called for in its misguided 2010 decision. By fighting the heinous erosion of clean elections in Maine, we can begin to confront this reckless equation of money and power in the nation as a whole.
This is why Columbia and Barnard students—partisans of all stripes welcome—will be heading north this fall break. This is why we will brave the elements on the streets of Portland, knocking on thousands of doors. This is why we will try so hard to convince the citizens of Maine that this is an issue that deserves their unanimous, enthusiastic support. It is vital that this issue matter to them, as it must to us here in Morningside Heights.
We have a long way to go until we can truly address the systems that silence the voices of all but the wealthy. By taking small steps like these at Columbia and in Maine, we can begin to return the democratic process to the hands of the American people.
Even if you do not join us this year, although we certainly hope you do, spare a thought for the single most important issue on the ballot this fall—clean elections in the state of Maine.
The Columbia Democrats meet every Wednesday at 9 p.m. They plan activism, discuss issues, and campaign for causes they care about.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.