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Norma Sims Roche: Voting for democracy

There are several important ballot questions this year, and one of them provides a chance to make your voice heard on a key problem that lies behind all the other issues we care about: corporate personhood and the flood of corporate money into our elections.

Voters in 76 western Massachusetts cities and towns — including Northampton — will have the opportunity to support a constitutional amendment that would end corporate personhood. The question — it’s Question 4 in most cities and towns, but Question 5 in towns where the Hampshire Council of Governments charter amendment is in the number 4 slot — reads:

“Shall the state senator from this district be instructed to vote in favor of a resolution calling upon Congress to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirming that 1) corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of human beings, and 2) both Congress and the States may place limits on political contributions and political spending?”

The campaign in support of this question is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which declared corporate campaign contributions to be protected speech under the First Amendment and supported the notion that corporations have the same rights as persons.

You might be thinking, why bother?

Isn’t this vote largely symbolic? What are the chances of a Constitutional amendment passing? Besides, there are so many other troublesome issues in our nation right now. We need jobs. Our homes are underwater. The climate is warming up. We’re losing our personal freedoms. Those idiots in Washington aren’t listening.

But dig deeper, and you’ll find that corporate personhood is at the root all these problems. That’s why I’ve chosen to focus my efforts on this issue, rather than the many others before us.

The Citizens United decision that gave corporations unlimited influence on our elections was only the latest in a series of court decisions starting in 1886 that give U.S. corporations unprecedented power.

That’s why their voices are drowning out ours in Washington. Why they keep tax loopholes for themselves in place and we make up the difference. Why they don’t have to tell you what’s in your food (that, too, would violate their right to free speech). Why polluters can go on polluting, protected from “unreasonable search and seizure.”

But of course, corporations are not natural persons with consciences and social obligations. Their charters make it clear that their first obligation is to make money for their shareholders. That alone makes them unlikely to act in the public interest.

The problem is a big one, and it needs a big fix: a constitutional amendment stating that corporations are not people and money is not speech.

Yes, this vote is largely symbolic. This ballot question is nonbinding, and in any case, the Massachusetts legislature already passed the resolution it’s asking for, in July, after we submitted the ballot question.

But symbolism matters! A strong “yes” on this question will send a clear message to our federal legislators, who are in the best position to get an amendment moving, and it will resound in support of the people all over the country — in red states and blue — who are promoting similar resolutions in their cities, towns and states. It will leave no one in doubt that we find the current situation unacceptable.

Please join me in voting yes for the Democracy Amendment on Election Day. More information is available at democracyamendmentmass.org.

Norma Sims Roche lives in Northampton.

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