From Wisconsin to Washington, Americans Are Demanding an Amendment to Overturn ‘Citizens United’

From Wisconsin to Washington, Americans Are Demanding an Amendment to Overturn ‘Citizens United’

From Wisconsin to Washington, Americans Are Demanding an Amendment to Overturn ‘Citizens United’

Referendum votes are sweeping Wisconsin, while Democracy Spring protesters are demanding an end to elections dominated by corporations and big money.


Despite all the media attention to last week’s Wisconsin primary, most news outlets missed the clearest signal sent by the voters of the state: It’s time to amend the Constitution to end corporate dominance of our politics.

Eleven Wisconsin cities, villages, and townships voted last Tuesday for proposals to amend the Constitution to declare that corporations are not people, that money is not speech, and that citizens (and their elected representatives) have a right to organize elections in which their votes matter more than billionaire dollars. The Wisconsin proposals won by wide margins, and George Penn, a volunteer with the group Wisconsin United to Amend, said the results make it plain that “Wisconsin voters are starting to understand that our political system is broken and it needs to be reformed.”

They’re not alone.

In Washington this week, “Democracy Spring” protests are raising an outcry against corporate influence over elections and governance—as well as the assault on voting rights. More than 400 activists were arrested Monday when the brought their demonstration to the Capitol steps. And there will be more protests and arrests in coming days as more than 250 groups—ranging from the AFL-CIO to the NAACP to Common Cause to Public Citizen to the National Family Farming Coalition to the National Organization for Women and the Franciscan Action Network—launch this weekend’s “Democracy Awakening” mobilization.

“Almost every American agrees our democracy is seriously out of whack—that our elections and government are dominated by wealthy special interests. And yet Congress is doing nothing. So today we say no more,” announced Democracy Spring lead organizer Kai Newkirk.

Newkirk is right when he says “almost every American agrees” on the crisis. Polls support that statement. And so do election results.

Last week’s Wisconsin referendum votes serve as a reminder that there is enormous grassroots support nationwide for a constitutional action to assure that the ideas and votes can count for more lobbying and campaign dollars. This demand for fundamental reform comes from across the political spectrum. The protests this week in Washington are making that clear, as did the votes last week in Wisconsin.

The April 5 votes for a constitutional amendment were overwhelming in Wisconsin communities that leaned Republicans voted and in communities that leaned Democrati, in factory towns and college towns, in farm towns and county seats. In Janesville, the hometown of Speaker Paul Ryan, the advisory referendum won with 84 percent of the vote. Platteville, a college town in southwestern Wisconsin, also registered 84 percent support for the referendum. And nearby Belmont, which almost 180 years ago served as the territorial capital, the vote was 88 percent for getting corporate cash out of politics.

The latest votes bring to 72 the number of Wisconsin communities that have backed advisory referendums on this issue. Communities that are home to 44 percent of Wisconsinites have backed the idea of amending the US Constitution to renew the founding premise of an American experiment based on individual (as opposed to corporate) rights.

As Platteville voter Linda Bernhardt argued in a letter to the editor published just before the April 5 voting: “We need to make it clear to those representing us that we do not consider corporations ‘people’ and that money is not free speech and that corporations are not people.”

When the votes were tallied in Platteville, that sentiment prevailed. There were 2,738 “yes” votes to just 528 “no” votes.

Since the movement to amend the Constitution began, following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which knocked down barriers to corporate spending to influence elections, close to 700 communities have called for an amendment to address the issue. Sixteen states have done so, as well, usually with legislative resolutions but in some cases via statewide referendums.

Wisconsin activists want to place a statewide advisory referendum on the ballot. State Representative Chris Taylor, D-Madison, and other members of the state Assembly and state Senate have proposed a measure that would ask Wisconsin voters two questions:

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and related cases allow unlimited spending to influence local, state, and federal elections. To allow all Americans to have an equal say in our democracy, shall Wisconsin’s congressional delegation support, and the Wisconsin legislature ratify, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating:

1. Only human beings—not corporations, unions, nonprofit organizations, or similar associations—are endowed with constitutional rights, and

2. Money is not speech, and therefore limiting political contributions and spending is not equivalent to restricting political speech?

Two states held referendums on corporate-power and campaign-finance issues in 2012, Colorado and Montana, and both voted by wide margins for proposals to amend the Constitution. More states are expected to hold referendums this year.

The Wisconsin legislature—which is controlled by cronies of Governor Scott Walker, who has relied on massive amounts of out-of-state money to hold his post in successive elections—has so far refused to act on the issue. But the voters in Wisconsin communities are not refusing. They are voting, in overwhelming numbers, for proposals to amend the Constitution—joining a national outcry that says “no to the big money special interests that are drowning out the voices of regular people.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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