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Most Americans, no matter their political persuasion, agree that we need to do something about the corrosive influence of money in our politics. A strong, healthy democracy exists when all participants believe their voice is of equal value to all other participants. As a person of faith, I am deeply concerned for the health of our democracy. If we are going to see justice for those who are on the margins of our society, our country needs a healthy democracy, where money does not control the process. A democracy calls for giving voters the chance to have their say on how to deal with the most pressing issues facing our state and our country.
Our democracy is threatened when donors can contribute large sums to politicians and often do so with anonymity. Regardless of which side of the aisle you are on, it is only human to feel a certain obligation to someone who has donated so much money to support you. In a strong democracy, all individuals should be respected. No single person should wield undue influence over elected officials. At the very least, the public should know which donors are paying for elections and who is trying to influence our elected officials. If someone is going to put a lot of money into politics, the public has a right to know who that is.
We had an opportunity to make changes to our system this November. I am disappointed and concerned about the response of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to a proposed ballot measure that was sent to her for approval for the November ballot. The measure would have reduced the contribution limits from $2,700 to $1,500 for statewide candidates and legislative candidates. It would have closed loopholes that allow lobbyists to influence officials and their staffs and that allow corporations to donate to candidates indirectly by giving money to groups that donate to candidates. It would have also created a process to allow voters to know who is trying to influence their vote by increasing disclosure and requiring all groups buying political ads to disclose their donors.
Further, the proposal would also have held people accountable for breaking the rules by raising the penalty from $1,000 to $10,000 for outside groups that don't follow disclosure laws.
It is the duty of the attorney general to review, offer feedback and approve ballot measure language before those proposals are publicly circulated and, if the proposals obtain the needed number of signatures, are put on the ballot for voters to vote on in November. I am concerned about the fashion in which the attorney general dealt with the measure. The process was drawn out for so long that an attorney backing the initiative sued her for failure to do her job. Unfortunately, the Arkansas Supreme Court failed to rule in favor of giving voters a chance to have a voice on this initiative.
Nationwide, communities are realizing they can take matters into their own hands to act to create a healthier democracy where people, not money, have the power.
Last year in Maine and Seattle, Wash., voters overwhelmingly supported initiatives to reduce the power of money in politics, and this year initiatives with the same aim are moving forward across the country.
A grassroots movement of community members here in Arkansas, including activists, educators, faith leaders, union leaders, legislators and nonprofit leaders, is coming together to support greater transparency and accountability in our politics in order for our democracy to thrive — and the struggle will continue.
We need a thriving democracy to ensure that it functions for all members of our society, especially those who are on the margins. Poll after poll shows that Americans of all political leanings believe we must do something to fix our broken political system. As a person of faith, I believe deeply it is time that we must do something to fix our system so it works for all of us.
I hope in the future our elected officials will let the voters decide for themselves if this type of measure is the right way to fix our broken political system. It is critical that we hear the voices of all the citizens of our state.
Rev. Stephen Copley is a United Methodist pastor and chair of Faith Voices Arkansas.
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