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Use The People’s Veto to End Citizens United
When I spoke at an event in February 2010, I gave the audience little boxes of matches. My point was that to achieve the change we were discussing we would need to light a prairie fire of activism. Two years later, I gave a similar talk. I needed no matchboxes. The prairie fire was well underway.
Both talks were about the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC (CU). The case was the crown jewel of decades of Supreme Court rulings that corporations are “persons” with constitutional rights, including free speech, and that spending money is a form of speech. CU allows unlimited spending on political campaigns directly from corporate treasuries right up to Election Day.
After the decision, most people I knew were in despair. Although polls showed that 80 percent of people who knew about the ruling opposed it, what were we to do? The highest court in the land had spoken. Corporate money would now flood our elections. Only a constitutional amendment could reverse the ruling. At my 2010 talk that possibility seemed remote indeed.
Two years later, when I spoke at a Move to Amend event, the mood was strikingly different. Organizers had just gotten the Port Townsend, Wash., city council to approve an amendment declaring that corporations are not people. They planned to press county officials and the state legislature to do likewise. Some planned to urge the League of Women Voters to support an amendment. Others wanted their churches to take a stand.
Across the country the momentum is building, spurred by organizations such as Free Speech for People, Move to Amend, Public Citizen, People for the American Way, and Occupy groups. The legislatures of Hawaii, New Mexico, and Vermont passed resolutions endorsing a constitutional amendment to reverse CU. The city councils of New York, Los Angeles, and many other cities and towns have passed such resolutions. In April 2012, attorneys general from 11 states recommended an amendment. Thirteen U.S. congress members have introduced amendments addressing CU. In December 2011, the Montana Supreme Court defied the CU decision, ruling that Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which curtails corporate spending on state elections, remains valid—a ruling the U.S. Supreme Court has stayed while it considers whether to review the case.
This widespread, multi-sector activism is exactly what is needed to amend the Constitution. It’s hard to get two-thirds of the Congress and three-quarters of the states to agree on anything, much less a measure that curtails corporate power. The trick is to build relentless pressure from the grassroots. The suffragettes learned this, mounting hundreds of campaigns at every level until the men in all those legislative bodies voted for the 19th amendment and women won the right to vote.
As activism spreads to reverse CU, so will the opposition. The corporate money we would like to restrain will be directed against this campaign. Advocates must make clear that this movement is not anti-business—in fact the American Sustainable Business Council, with members representing over 100,000 businesses, endorses an amendment. And the movement must be trans partisan, attracting people from all parties.
Corporations are not people and money is not speech. In a true democracy each person has one voice, and its power depends on the weight of the argument, not the size of the wallet. The founders gave us a way to exercise a “people’s veto” by amending our Constitution to overrule our country’s highest court. We have done it before. To save our democracy, we must do it again.