Alaskans have narrowly approved a sweeping revamp of their election rules, delivering one of the year's biggest victories to democracy reformers.
Adoption of the ballot initiative immediately pushes the nation's most expansive and remote state to a central place of honor for "good governance" groups, because the measure embraces two of their main goals: elections that are less monopolized by the major parties and campaign financing that's more transparent.
The victory became clear only Tuesday night, two weeks after the voting ended, thanks to the state's uniquely slow pace for tabulating mailed ballots. Because of the pandemic they accounted for two out of every five votes in Alaska this fall, and counting them reversed what looked like a likely defeat for the package. But with nearly complete results, the proposal has prevailed by 3,700 votes out of 343,000 cast — a margin of 1 percentage point.
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Since New Mexico enacted a new disclosure law last year, more than $800,000 in political spending has been publicly reported by nonprofit groups that in the past would have remained largely hidden.
It's a change that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver calls "a huge victory." But Austin Graham of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for tighter regulation of money in politics, is more reserved: "What's on the books in New Mexico is not the most cutting edge, but it's undoubtedly a big improvement from the last decade."
The New Mexico experience illustrates that improving the transparency of how campaigns are financed can be done, but making progress often requires incremental steps that take a lot of time. What has happened in New Mexico is an example of what states across the country must grapple with when they seek to slow the influence of money over their own politics, at a time when federal regulation of presidential and congressional elections has shriveled.
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Joe Biden has plenty of campaign promises to keep, beyond the obvious and enormous top priorities of corralling the coronavirus and stabilizing the economy. And that's made democracy reform groups, which have never counted him as an impassioned ally, newly skeptical their priorities will get addressed in his new administration.
Their anxiety has come to the surface this week. A coalition of 170 progressive good governance and voting rights organizations asked the president-elect to elevate a collection of fix-the-system proposals into his first 100 days' agenda. Separately, one of the most influential such groups, RepresentUs, lambasted the Biden transition for "an omission of epic proportions" by giving short shrift to the issues it cares about.
Their impatience, just days after Biden's victory became clear, underscores the precarious position the cause of fixing democracy's dysfunction has in the public policy agenda.
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Tuesday's election yielded two wins and one probable loss for those who say that curbing the influence of money in politics is key to a better democracy.
By far the most significant victory for that cause was in Oregon, which voted overwhelmingly to allow the state to limit campaign contributions and spending — and reverse some of the nation's most permissive campaign financing rules. And a couple of symbolic new limits were approved Tuesday in Missouri. But a package including new curbs on gifts to campaigns was facing rejection in Alaska.
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