The minimum wage in this country hasn’t kept pace with inflation.

Workers today earning the minimum are actually effectively making around $3 less per hour than they would have been in 1968. In poll after poll, landslide majorities of Americans agree that is wrong and support raising the federal minimum wage to at least $10 an hour.

So why hasn’t it happened yet?

One of the reasons may be that nearly two-thirds of workers making at or below the minimum wage are women.

Women, especially those who aren’t married (a majority of those making the minimum wage are counted among this group), vote at a lower rate than the rest of the population and are less engaged in other aspects of our democracy, including running for office and voicing their opinions in places such as this newspaper.

This disparity plays right into the hands of powerful interests with damaging agendas. Many corporate mega-donors, such as the Koch Brothers, big box stores, fast food giants and other large corporations, pay poverty wages while letting taxpayers foot the bill for federal benefits like SNAP that their workers rely on to make ends meet, and are more than happy that those who would benefit most from a wage hike don’t have a strong voice.

They are also making sure that the media distract people from their responsibility by constantly attacking welfare recipients, as if the poor are solely responsible for their poverty.

Maine sought to address this problem 14 years ago with the implementation of the Maine Clean Elections Act. It allowed more women and more people who weren’t independently wealthy of all genders to run for office and participate in the electoral process. It decreased the influence of these corporate interests and increased the power of regular people, especially Maine women.

A study published in 2004 found that 62 percent of female candidates said the availability of the Clean Elections option was “very important” in allowing them to run and 42 percent said they wouldn’t have run without it —  much higher numbers than among male candidates.

When I was approached to run for the Legislature in 2000, that new system was a deciding factor for me. I was a single mother, a student, and working as a waitress. I was not the kind of person I thought of as a “politician,” which is why I decided to try.

Representing my hometown in Augusta and working to create opportunities for local people to improve their own lives was the second best thing, after being a mom, that I have been fortunate enough to have done in my life.

I know that, because of my experiences as a single mother and a domestic violence survivor, I gave a voice to people who are too often stereotyped, vilified and forgotten. Without the Clean Election system, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Unfortunately, a Supreme Court decision on money in politics, one of several recently that have prioritized dollars over speech, damaged the Clean Elections Act and made it more difficult for Clean Elections candidates to compete.

Thankfully, there is a chance to repair the system and make sure all Mainers, and especially women, have a real opportunity to participate in the political process and that their voices aren’t drowned out by big money.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections has launched a petition campaign to place a referendum on the ballot to restore and strengthen Maine’s clean election system, once again making it a bulwark against corporate interests and a platform for regular Mainers to be heard.

The original Clean Elections Act was passed by referendum and a public vote provides the best chance to improve the system now.

If it makes it onto the ballot and passes, this referendum could make the difference in helping women, and all Mainers, have a real voice in the political processes that affect their lives. It could also help to tip the scales on important policies that affect us all, including the vital issue of fair wages.

Everyone benefits when women have a voice.

Deb Simpson of Auburn served in the Maine Legislature from 2000 to 2010. She is currently a full time homemaker.

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