Activist Primer: The Nitty-Gritty on the Amendment Movement to Defeat Citizens United

Hundreds of protests across the country over the past weekend marked the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's controversial ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The protests also marked the launch of a swelling grassroots movement to amend to challenge the ruling, which unleashed unlimited independent campaign spending and gave rise to the now-infamous super PACs.

Resolutions opposing Citizens United have passed in city halls across the country. Lawmakers have introduced dozens of resolutions, including at least ten in the 112th Congress. And if reform activists are successful in 2012, voters may be able support – in one way or another – a push for a constitutional amendment that would strike down Citizens United.

The 2012 election will be the most expensive in history. About $35 million has already been spent on the GOP presidential contest, and divisive attack ads paid for by super PACs are generating headlines daily. While many of the groups in a broad coalition challenging Citizens United have a progressive bent, organizers say voters across the spectrum are fed up with the deluge of big money in politics.

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A recent poll shows that 62 percent of voters oppose the Citizens United decision and 46 percent strongly oppose it. More than half of those polled said they would support a constitutional amendment to reverse the ruling.

“Most Americans … don't think the government works for them anymore, and the system looks increasingly rigged by special interests that dump millions of dollars every day into elections and lobbying,” said Bob Edgar, reform advocate and president of Common Cause. “People need a way to make to make their voices heard over all this noise. That's what Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have in common, even if their values are very different.”

Edgar's Common Cause is part of a broad coalition pushing for such an amendment and marching under the banner United for the People. The campaigns involved are all working at a grassroots level, at least for the time being, but they are not necessarily united in strategy.

Last week, Common Cause launched a campaign to put “voter instruction” ballot initiatives on 2012 ballots in all 50 states that would instruct lawmakers to push for an amendment. Another group, Move to Amend, is working to pass resolutions on the local level in order to build enough political momentum to force Congress to consider an amendment. Here's a closer look at these two campaigns moving forward.

A Movement to Amend

Move to Amend spearheaded the Occupy the Courts protests on January 20 and has arguably made the most progress on the ground. The group's grassroots strategy relies on local activists pushing city councils to adopt resolutions in support of the cause before moving on to the state and federal level. The group's local victories in progressive hotspots have already made headlines.

City councils in New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, and more than a dozen other cities have already passed resolutions to abolish “corporate personhood” or to support an amendment to reverse Citizens United.

Move to Amend has already prepared the amendment the group hopes will be the 28th in the Constitution. The amendment does not specifically mention the Citizens United ruling but aims at overriding two main precedents.

The first is “corporate personhood,” a movement buzzword that refers to corporations obtaining the same rights as individuals. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that limiting expenditures on political discourse, such as independent campaign ads, violated the First Amendment. Critics argue that the ruling grants corporations the same free speech rights enjoyed by individuals, thus creating “corporate personhood.” Move to Amend's amendment would limit the right guaranteed under the Constitution to “natural persons only” and would exclude “artificial entities.”

The second section of the amendment Move to Amend crafted gives the government the right to regulate political expenditures, requires campaign-finance disclosure and declares political spending to influence elections is not protected under the First Amendment. This would eliminate what is commonly called the “money equals speech” precedent, first established in 1976 under Buckley v. Valeo.

Move to Amend's Occupy the Courts day of action was inspired by the Occupy movement, and several Occupies, including Occupy Wall Street, participated in actions. The group's approach is sure to resonate with Occupiers and the growing anticorporate movement. Many of the local resolutions denouncing Citizens United, however, were passed in coastal cities and college towns known for their liberal populations. It remains to be seen if Move to Amend will gain momentum elsewhere.

Citizens United on the Ballot

If Common Cause succeeds in its Amend 2012 campaign, every voter would have a say on Citizens United in 2012. Common Cause is attempting to put a “voter instruction” initiative on ballots in all 50 states that, if approved, would instruct Congress to adopt an amendment making it clear that corporations are not people and money is not speech.

The instructions would be nonbinding, but Edgar said they carry “a great weight.” Voter instructions were a tactic used by the term-limit movement and also by progressives who pushed for the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, which allowed voters to directly elect senators to Congress. Voter instructions passed in states like Oregon asked state legislators to send senators to Congress based on a popular vote from citizens.

Thirty-eight states must approve a proposed constitutional amendment, so Common Cause claims it makes sense to start with state ballot initiatives. Common Cause is using petitions to place voter instructions on 2012 where possible. In other states, the group plans to petition state legislatures to create the initiative.

Common Cause does not expect an ultimate victory in 2012, but Edgar said the group is committed to continue campaigning in years to come. This election year is key, however, because the nationwide campaign could inject the issue into the national debate and force candidates – especially President Obama and his opponent – to address the outside spending in their campaigns. The voter instructions – if Common Cause succeeds in placing them on enough ballots – will also serve as a comprehensive referendum on Citizens United, allowing Americans to finally tell Washington how they feel about big money in politics.

“We're under no illusions here. This fight is going to take a long time to win,” said Robert Reich, Common Cause chair and former labor secretary under the Clinton administration. “But voters are fed up, they need a way to make their voices heard and we need to start right now.”

Unlike Move to Amend, Common Cause has not written a proposed amendment and plans to work on the language over time.

Common Cause's strategy is comprehensive and has worked in the past, but the goal of placing voter instructions on ballots in all 50 states by November is certainly an ambitious one for a campaign that officially launched just last week. The clock is ticking.

Movement Building

Common Cause and Move to Amend are certainly not alone. More than 60 other organizations are supporting the effort to amend the Constitution to reverse Citizens United. Free Speech For People, for example, lists on its web site several resolutions introduced by lawmakers in five states and others passed by towns in Massachusetts.

Lawmakers are also taking up the fight. On Monday, People For the American Way held a conference with Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), who have all proposed resolutions to combat the Citizens United ruling.

Amending the Constitution is also not the only strategy. Some groups are pushing the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to write new rules mandating that corporations reveal their political spending to investors. Some say an amendment would not be necessary if Congress took the right action. (See an alternative analysis here). The broader movement to overturn Citizens United, however, seems to agree that working to amend the Constitution – and doing some movement-building along the way – is the best path toward defeating Citizens United once and for all, even if activists don't always agree on how to get there.

“I have complete confidence that this movement will not only capture the public's imagination and gain momentum, but will become one of the fundamental, if not the fundamental, movement over the next few years,” said Reich.