SOUTH PORTLAND — “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution became the law of the land and women finally had the right to vote. On that day, more than 26 million women had their citizenship affirmed and were forever empowered as equal participants in the democratic process.
When the amendment was ratified, Carrie Chapman Catt, suffragist and founder of the League of Women Voters, declared at the Call to the 1920 Suffrage Convention that it was a time to “rejoice that the struggle is over, the aim achieved and the women of the nation about to enter into the enjoyment of their hard-earned political liberty.”
But is the struggle over? What has become of our hard-earned political liberty? Yes, over the past century we have extended voting rights to more and more Americans, but our ability to exercise that freedom is regularly under attack from restrictive laws that limit voter registration, require unnecessary voter identification at the polls, and make it harder for us to exercise our constitutional right to vote.
And even when we exercise the freedom to vote, are we really equal players in the process? In today’s political system, where the line between corporate rights and people’s rights continues to blur and money counts as speech, I fear the answer is “no.”
As Lawrence Lessig, Harvard professor and pro-democracy activist, reminds us, the founding fathers made clear in the Federalist Papers that they envisioned a government “dependent on the people alone.” The “people” according to James Madison included “not the rich more than the poor,” because by definition, democracy cannot flourish where political power is not equally shared.
Yet today, the evisceration of our campaign finance laws by an overreaching judiciary and the inability of policymakers to respond have left the wealthy with more political power than ever, able to give unlimited money with little transparency or oversight.
So, as we recognize the achievement of our foremothers, it’s clear that the struggle for true democracy is not over.
Today, the struggle is not against a system that fails to provide equal participation in the process, but against a system that values one type of participant over all others; one that concentrates political power in the hands of a wealthy few at the expense of the many. Big money from a small handful of wealthy sources drowns out the voices of everyday voters, and it threatens our democracy. In fact, a recent study by professors from Princeton and Northwestern universities found that the opinions of ordinary Americans had little to no effect on public policy, while the opinions of their wealthy donors hold significant sway.
In a system that values donors over voters, democracy loses.
Here in Maine, we can do something to elevate the voices of all people in our democracy and push back on the harmful influence of money in elections. This summer and fall, Mainers from across the state are collecting signatures to get a Clean Elections Initiative on the ballot in 2015 to strengthen Maine’s first-in-the-nation Clean Elections Act, to require greater disclosure of dark money, and to increase fines and penalties for failure to adhere to Maine election law. Mainers first passed the Clean Elections Act through a citizens initiative in 1996 because we knew we could do better. We knew we could have a system that severs the direct connection between donors and elected officials, restores the balance of political power to voters, and keeps our representatives accountable to us.
On the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, as we acknowledge and celebrate the political liberty that Carrie Chapman Catt and so many others fought so long to attain, we must also make sure that it still means something. To honor their sacrifice, to make sure we have a true representative democracy, we must win back some measure of political equality. We must pick up the mantle of those that have fought before us and return the power of our democracy to its rightful place: with the people of our state and nation.
The Clean Elections Initiative gives us that opportunity, and I encourage my fellow Mainers to sign the petition and join the fight.
— Special to the Press Herald