Following the most expensive presidential election in history, Los Angeles voters are set to become the largest electorate to vote whether to support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
The LA City Council voted Wednesday to draft ballot language for voters to weigh in on whether they believe there should be limits on campaign spending and whether corporations should have the same rights as people.
The ballot measure will urge Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Citizens United ruling, which says that restriction of political spending by corporations or labor unions violates free speech.
The LA effort was spearheaded by the campaign finance watchdog Common Cause, which has been working since early 2012 to overturn the Supreme Court decision. Since Common Cause began this campaign, seven states and more than 300 cities have passed resolutions calling for the ruling to be overturned.
The difference in LA is that the question is being put directly to voters.
“Congress members may respect the opinions of the city councils, but councilors are not their ‘boss,’” Derek Cressman, director of the Common Cause Campaign to Reverse Citizens United, told The Huffington Post. “Having voters directly instruct members of Congress, their ‘employees,’ carries a certain obligation to respect. … If members of Congress fail to follow the instructions of their constituents, they run the risk of getting fired.”
The ballot-measure approach was put into action in November 2012, when voters in Montana, Colorado and 175 cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, and more than half the cities in Massachusetts, passed measures instructing Congress to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
“The results we’ve seen so far from these ballot measures have been beyond our hopes and expectations,” Cressman said. The ballot measures all passed, winning from 72 percent to 81 percent of the vote.
Even in the red state of Montana, where 55 percent of the presidential election vote went to Republican Mitt Romney, 75 percent voted for a constitutional amendment to overturn the court’s ruling.
Common Cause, with the help of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), plans to petition for ballot measures in as many cities and states as it takes to get Congress to act. Most recently, Gainsville, Fla., voted to put a Citizens United measure on its ballot, and Common Cause is gearing up to gather signatures to petition for a state ballot measure in Arkansas.
Over the past two years, 17 bills to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United have been proposed by members of Congress, but none made it to the floor for a vote.
That’s not surprising. “Incumbents succeeded in the old system — the system where big money rules the day,” said David Burke, civil litigation attorney who has worked with the Money Out/Voters In Coalition in LA. “They’re going to be reluctant to reform the system that worked well for them.”
Even politicians who have called for overturning the ruling, including President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have been slow to take action. “The idea of a constitutional amendment seems so daunting, even supporters have a hard time prioritizing it over things like the debt ceiling because they don’t feel the immediacy of it,” Cressman said. “That’s why it’s important for citizens to speak up.”
Cressman said he got the idea for local ballot measures from the 17th Amendment, which brought about the direct election of U.S. senators in 1913. For years, a constitutional amendment to elect senators by popular vote instead of appointing them was proposed in the House but, not surprisingly, was blocked in the Senate. But when Oregon put the matter to a popular vote, followed by twenty-nine other states, Congress felt enough pressure to pass the amendment.
The method by which all 27 U.S. constitutional amendments have been added in the past requires two-thirds approval in both the House and Senate and then approval by three-fourths of the states.
Within two weeks, once the Citizens United measure language has been drafted, the LA City Council is expected to vote in favor of putting it on the city’s May ballot, when Angelenos will vote for a new mayor.
“Sometimes when a goal is far off, it seems nearly impossible to achieve, but you have to break down into certain things we can do. It’s not just about a ballot measure, but also about electing politicians who agree with us on these issues,” Burke said.
“It’s definitely not going to be easy, but if the nation could mobilize to ban alcohol and then reintroduce it, I think we can mobilize around something that’s this fundamental to our very democracy,” Burke said.