The Election Reform Moment?
There is little in the way of good news on the campaign finance front. In 2012, campaigns for every office—from the presidency to the San Jose City Council—cost exponentially more than ever before. It is certainly true that right-wing billionaires like Sheldon Adelson blew fortunes on losing political bets, as did the US Chamber of Commerce and other groups that had hoped to buy elections with unlimited expenditures. But as Public Campaign’s Nick Nyhart notes, “billionaires lost, but big money won.” Republicans backed by Adelson and the Koch brothers got beat by Democratic campaigns and progressive interest groups that came close to—and sometimes matched—Republican and conservative spending. Even those who complain about the political arms race reject unilateral disarmament. The pay-to-play political process remains cloaked in “dark money” secrecy, as special interests develop new schemes to use and abuse it, and every indication is that the courts are determined to make things worse.
The situation is overwhelming—and that’s the good news. The days of imagining we can merely tinker around the edges of America’s historically dysfunctional system for funding political campaigns with private dollars are over. There is no small reform that will begin to adequately control what former Senator Russ Feingold identifies as “legalized bribery.” That understanding is what has made even the winners under the current system, led by President Obama, recognize that big changes are needed.
Obama has responded with uncharacteristic aggressiveness to the Supreme Court’s 2010 obliteration of limits on corporate intervention in our elections. After calling out the Court in his State of the Union address in 2010, he acknowledged in 2012 that “we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it).”
The president’s evolution toward an embrace of a constitutional remedy once considered radical mirrors a dawning recognition that the work of campaign finance reformers in America is no longer just about the simple “good government” project of old. Now it’s about building a movement that goes to the heart of the matter: the corporate control of elections and governance. Three years ago, after the Citizens United ruling came down, veteran reformer John Bonifaz co-founded the Free Speech for People movement, which seeks a twenty-eighth amendment to the Constitution to address it. “At that time, there were plenty of skeptics who thought an amendment movement would not have any staying power, could not be built, and that people around the country would not get engaged with pushing for what is an ambitious goal,” Bonifaz admits. “But I think what we’ve found over the past three years is, those skeptics have been quieted.”
Campaign-finance reform movements have been around for more than a century, in varying forms. They have always had popular support, but never before have they seen the level of specific and sustained engagement now on display. Eleven states have moved legislatively or at the polls to call for a constitutional amendment, with Colorado (an Obama state) and Montana (a Romney state) both voting on November 6, by roughly 75 to 25 percent margins, to urge their congressional delegations to propose and support an amendment that allows Congress and the states to limit campaign contributions and spending.
On the same day, more than 150 communities across the country weighed voter-initiated ballot questions on the issue. Every single referendum won—and won big. In San Francisco, 80 percent of the voters backed a Common Cause–endorsed proposal to overturn Citizens United. But so did 65 percent of the voters in conservative Pueblo, Colorado; despite editorial opposition to the resolution by the local newspaper, voters told their congressional representatives not just to back an amendment that declares, “Money is not speech and, therefore, limiting political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech,” but also to recognize that “the inherent rights of mankind recognized under the United States Constitution belong to natural human beings only, and not to legally created entities, such as corporations.”
“In every single community where Americans have had the opportunity to call for a constitutional amendment to outlaw corporate personhood, they have seized it and voted yes overwhelmingly,” says Move to Amend activist Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap. “Americans are fed up with large corporations wielding undue influence over our elections and our legal system.”
This grassroots movement is real, and it crosses partisan, ideological and regional lines. “This is happening because the people want it to happen,” says Marge Baker of People for the American Way, one of a number of reform groups that organized dozens of “Money Out, Voters In” actions nationwide, held on or around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to launch the 2013 round of local and state initiatives to encourage congress to take up at least one of the amendment proposals advanced by Senator Bernie Sanders, Congresswoman Donna Edwards, Congressman Jim McGovern and others. The movement has not yet reached critical mass, but if the number of states supporting an amendment of some sort doubles in 2013 (as the organizers with Public Citizen’s ambitious Democracy Is for People campaign suggest could happen), the prospects for meaningful reforms that do not require a constitutional amendment increase as well. And many different proposals have been advanced, by groups and by elected leaders like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards. As President Obama himself pointed out, “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight on the Super PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”