The upcoming Better Elections Initiative was driven by Alaska citizens, who delivered tens of thousands of signatures to guarantee its spot in the 2020 Alaska ballot. In this Q&A, Juneau lawyer and American Promise citizen leader Joe Geldhof shares why Alaskans are so engaged in self-government, and why they’re determined to take back control of their state from wealthy outside special interests.
Recently, Alaskans gathered signatures to put a democracy reform initiative on the ballot for the 2020 election. This is big. American Promise joins RepresentUs, Unite America, and thousands of Alaskans to create a chance for huge reform: ranked choice voting, open primaries, dark money disclosure, and a call from the people of Alaska for the American Promise Amendment. Learn more about the initiative from Joe Geldhof, one of our members in Juneau, Alaska.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
The Alaska ballot initiative will be on November ballots thanks to the citizen leadership of Alaskans gathering signatures. Why do Alaskans care about democracy reform?
Joe Geldhof: 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 in the Alaska economy transformed the dynamics of Alaska’s 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.
The ballot initiative includes a number of reforms, including money in politics. Why is the issue of money in politics relevant for Alaskans?
JG: We Alaskans are independent—and prickly in some situations. We don’t like being told what to do and how to do things. The Supreme 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.
In the decade since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, how have you seen politics and elections change in Alaska?
JG: 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 stay elected. 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 the elected official. Our democracy in the Last Frontier is being corroded by the influence of big money.
If this ballot initiative passes, Alaska would be the 21st state to officially call on Congress to pass an amendment to overturn Citizens United. What do you look forward to in the future of America if this amendment is ratified nationwide?
JG: What I look forward to is 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 I have genuine hope that Alaskans and Americans will continue this wonderful Constitutional experiment we started in 1787 by amending the U.S. Constitution, so that individual states like Alaska are allowed to set appropriate campaign standards.