Ballot question targets court’s 2010 Citizens United decision

Last modified: Sunday, November 11, 2012

One ballot question Tuesday in many communities instructs state senators to call on Congress to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirming that corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of human beings. The nonbinding referendum also expresses that both Congress and the states may limit political contributions and political spending.

The issue, sparked by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United decision in 2010 that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations, may sound familiar to residents, who passed similar resolutions in 21 western Massachusetts towns this spring urging their legislators to urge Congress to begin Constitutional amendment proceedings.

And the Massachusetts Legislature in July adopted a resolution declaring that “For the past three decades, a divided United States Supreme Court has stretched the limits of the First Amendment to allow for corporations, unions, political action committees and super political action committees to influence the political process and democratically enacted reforms, and ...(the) Court’s Ruling in Citizens United will allow special interests limitless and unprecedented campaign spending and thus disproportionate influence, threatening the fairness of the democratic process.”

Still, the referendum question, placed on the ballot before the Legislature’s action will likely be “a further measure of where the public is on this question,” said John Bonifaz of Amherst, cofounder and executive director of Free Speech for People, the national, nonpartisan organization trying to reverse a decision which it says is undermining democracy.

Free Speech for People, which worked with Common Cause Massachusetts and Move to Amend to organize the referendum question in Massachusetts and is also involved in similar questions on the Montana and Colorado ballots on Tuesday, along with jurisdictions around the country, is also working in the courts and through legislative efforts in a multipronged approach to resolving the issue by Amending the Constitution.

Passage of these measures, Bonifaz said, “will trumpet recognition that this is what people want around the state and the country. I think they’re helpful in ways of demonstrating popular support for this amendment.”

Bonifaz, a 2006 candidate for secretary of state, with family ties to Conway and Whately, said nine states, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico and Vermont, have already called on Congress to take action to reverse the effects of Citizens United.

By 2016, he believes 25 of the 50 states “will be on board,” and that the issues of allowing corporations to dominate the political debate will be a big campaign issue in national elections in a way it has not been this year.

“Women didn’t get the right to vote in this country because the men in power thought it was good idea. They organized, fought and died for the 19th Amendment, but I don’t think it will take 90 years (to change the Constitution on the role of corporations.) My take on this is I think it will be a time frame of 10 years where we can see enactment,” and maybe shorter if “an enormous scandal” erupts. It may take another few years beyond 2014 to bring about enough states for ratification, and he sees the amendment process as a quicker solution than bringing about a change in the makeup of the Supreme Court.

With an estimated $6 billion being spent on this year’s Presidential election, Bonifaz says, it’s already becoming clear to a growing number of people that the role of corporate power dominating politics is a problem.

“It’s not a partisan issue,” he said. “We intend to reach out, and we have reached out, across the political spectrum. There are a lot of Republicans and independents (as well as Democrats) who will vote for that initiative. And that will further tell the story of why people across the political spectrum believe in this.”

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