If you are anything like me, you may have already looked to my author bio and learned that I am not actually a Portland voter. In fact, I don’t even vote in the state of Maine. My polling location is 1,140 miles away, in Athens, Georgia. You might be wondering what I am doing here, discussing politics that are not pertinent to me. The answer to that question begins with Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams.

Many people know this race as the closest gubernatorial election in Georgia since 1966, but it was also the most expensive governor’s race in Georgia’s history. Kemp raised just under $21 million, and Abrams raised $22.1 million. In the 2014 election, all candidates combined raised around $23 million. Furthermore, in 2018, much of the money raised was donated by out-of-state political action committees, businesses and party-affiliated groups. Our democracy was created with the purpose of having elected officials serve as a representative voice for everyday citizens. Too often, however, our elected officials are accountable not to everyday citizens, but rather to large donors who fund their campaigns.

Following this election, it is clear that Georgia is deeply entrenched in an electoral system that values money over actual voters. In our democracy, we always have the ability to seek reform. We live in a system of 50 states that look to one another for examples of policies that work well and can be implemented in our own states and districts. As I have struggled to understand how to move forward in Georgia, I have looked to Maine as a leader on Clean Elections and ranked-choice voting. That’s why I have come to Maine this summer.

But even as Maine has made strides in creating clean and accountable elections, there is still more work to be done here in Portland. Fair Elections Portland is a citizen-led campaign that is working to expand ranked-choice voting and bring Clean Elections to Portland. Although ranked-choice voting applies to mayoral elections, voters cannot rank candidates for City Council or school board. Of the eight current city councilors, three have won an election in the last four years with less than half of the vote. Additionally, in the last 10 years, campaign fundraising has greatly increased. In the at-large City Council elections held from 2009 to 2015, the average candidate raised around $2,600. The average candidate for the same races held from 2016 to 2018 raised around $22,000.

Fair Elections Portland has come together to enact two reforms, the first of which will expand ranked-choice voting to include City Council and school board elections. Expanding ranked-choice voting will ensure that all municipal elected officials will be supported by, and therefore be accountable to, a majority of voters. The second reform will create a public Clean Elections fund for municipal candidates in order to keep elections focused on the needs of Portlanders rather than businesses and out-of-state interests. When candidates opt to run a Clean Elections campaign, they will receive a sum of public funding, so they do not have to spend as much time asking for donations. This means that candidates can spend more time interacting with constituents and learning which issues everyday Portland voters care about.

These initiatives are highly interrelated. Ranked-choice voting is a positive step toward making municipal elections more democratic, but if we don’t also address the issue of big money in politics, then the candidates who are able to run the most competitive campaigns will not be representative of the people. If we choose to ignore the influence of big donors and special interests in local elections, it will become even more difficult for everyday Portlanders to run for office and make their voices heard through small campaign donations. By enacting these two reforms together, we can strengthen Portland’s democracy, ensuring that local politicians are elected by a majority and must answer to the people rather than moneyed interests.

If municipal officials are not checked by the very people they are elected to serve, then democracy is not working properly. Portland citizens have the opportunity to once again show the rest of the country leadership in creating fair, representative and accountable elections.

 


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