Jan. 21, 2010 seems like any other date in U.S. history, but in fact, perhaps no day has had a bigger impact on the health of our American democracy. On that infamous date, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on a case commonly referred to as "Citizens United.” This decision firmly established that corporations, unions and other artificially created legal entities are to be treated under our law as “persons” with the same fundamental rights and protections that real people enjoy. One of those rights, of course, is the First Amendment right to free speech in the political sphere.
The Citizens United decision clarified that “speech” is not simply the content of someone’s message but is also any use of money to spread that message far and wide. Logically, that means that citizens do not all have equal “free speech” rights; instead, we have as much (or as little) free speech as we can buy.
While our state initiative will not overturn the ruling or immediately affect actual election policy here in Washington State, it will add momentum to the nationwide movement to take our democracy back...
In addition, beyond contributions to individual candidates, the court also allowed any “person” to funnel unlimited election-time funds to political groups called Super PACs and a growing number of non-profit advocacy organizations, as long as those organizations did not blatantly coordinate their advocacy with a specific candidate for office. What’s more, unlike electoral campaigns, these non-profit organizations do not have to disclose the identities of the “persons” who contributed or the amounts.
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Since the ruling, running for office has become more expensive and our individual votes less valuable.
Thankfully, just over six years later, we have a new date of note here in Washington State. Jan. 26, 2016: the day the citizens of Washington State took a stand and said we want our democracy back! On this day, the Secretary of State’s office validated the over 300,000 signatures supporting I-735, urging our state Congressional delegation and all members of Congress to propose a federal Constitutional amendment clarifying:
▪ Constitutional rights belong only to individuals, not corporations;
▪ Spending money is not free speech under the First Amendment;
▪ Governments are empowered to regulate political contributions and expenditures to prevent undue influence; and
▪ Political contributions and expenditures must be promptly disclosed to the public.
This initiative will now be on the November 2016 ballot. Over 1,600 volunteers and supporters juggled priorities, battled the weather and, most importantly, convinced voters that amending the U.S. Constitution and overturning Citizens United is the best way to ensure a government by the people and for the people. While our state initiative will not overturn the ruling or immediately affect actual election policy here in Washington State, it will add momentum to the nationwide movement to take our democracy back, making Washington State the 17th state to call for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. The work was not easy, but nobody thought amending the constitution would be.
Here in Whatcom County, a dedicated bunch of over 80 volunteers worked hard on the initiative. From having a member on the statewide steering committee to holding free events with movies and speakers to standing in the rain asking for signatures or sweating in the sun educating voters on the issue, Whatcom County did its part to make sure the initiative would pass. Surpassing the goal put forth by the state office, volunteers in Whatcom County collected over 20,000 signatures.
We must now work to guarantee its passage on the November ballot, adding our state’s voice to the nationwide call for campaign finance reform. With this, we’ll return our democracy to the people and forget Jan. 21, 2010 forever.
Kevin Probasco is a member of the MTA Whatcom Steering Committee.