Soapbox

Californians can send a strong message against big money in politics

Protestors gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2013 as it hears a campaign finance case that followed the controversial Citizens United decision in 2010.
Protestors gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2013 as it hears a campaign finance case that followed the controversial Citizens United decision in 2010. Abaca Press/MCT

Proposition 59 lets Californians tell their member of Congress to overturn the Citizens United ruling and take steps to reduce the role of big money in politics. The fact that political pundits have grown accustomed to legislators ignoring public opinion is precisely why we need to vote “yes” on Proposition 59 – and then stay vigilant afterward to make sure politicians follow through.

By ruling that campaign spending is the same thing as free speech and that corporations enjoy the same constitutional rights as real people, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates to unprecedented amounts of campaign money, often from secret sources. In the Citizens United ruling, the court gutted long-standing federal prohibitions against corporate and labor spending on political campaigns, and subsequent rulings paved the way for the billionaire-driven super PACs that dominate our federal elections.

While the biggest spender doesn’t always win, most of the time they do. As a result, politicians listen to the billionaires who can write huge checks to their campaigns far more than to regular voters.

While we can hope that a new Supreme Court will some day revisit its most egregious rulings, the most certain and lasting path to reform would be a constitutional amendment. It’s not easy to amend the Constitution, but we have done it 27 times before. Indeed, more than a century ago California sparked a movement to pass the 17th Amendment to give us the right to vote for U.S. senators by using a measure similar to Prop 59.

Like a political party platform, Prop. 59 is not enforceable in court. But just as a primary challenger can hold an incumbent who strays from the party platform accountable, members of Congress who ignore the expressed wishes of their constituents will have to answer tough questions if they seek re-election.

The time has come to re-establish the concept that elected representatives should actually represent constituents, not impose their own agendas or cater to narrow financial interests. In 2012, voters in Colorado and Montana instructed their representatives to overturn Citizens United by margins of three-to-one. Republican and Democratic legislators responded with calls for a constitutional amendment.

Passage of Proposition 59 does not guarantee victory in the battle against big money politics. Voters need to follow up to make sure our elected officials listen. But they surely won’t listen if we don’t first speak loud and clearly that we want aggressive action to reduce the role of billionaires and corporations in our elections.

Jeff Clements is president of American Promise, which is seeking to overturn Citizens United and can be contacted at jeffc@americanpromise.net. Derek Cressman directs California Common Cause’s campaign to pass Proposition 59 and can be contacted at DC@derekcressman.com.

Editor’s note: There is no organized opposition to Proposition 59, and state Sen. Jeff Stone and Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, the authors of the official ballot argument against it, declined to submit a viewpoint.

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