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In New Gilded Age, Citizens’ Ballot Initiative Another Casualty of Citizens United Decision

The citizens’ ballot initiative, created in the first Gilded Age to counter plutocratic governance, is overmatched in new Gilded Age.

"After the Supreme Court has created rights of unlimited corporate campaign spending, we face a new Gilded Age." (Image via Shutterstock)

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We did not always have the citizens’ ballot initiative, or referendum, in Massachusetts or elsewhere in America.

Not until the early 20th century did people in the states insist on this tool of democracy as a way to overcome what had become entrenched corporate and moneyed interests of the last Gilded Age. Now, after the Supreme Court has created rights of unlimited corporate campaign spending, we face a new Gilded Age. As the overwhelming effect of corporate money in the local casino and bottle bill initiatives show, even the ballot initiative process is now at risk.

In Massachusetts, we have the citizens’ ballot initiative because of the Constitutional Convention of 1917-18. The reason? The people of Massachusetts demanded an end to the domination of politics by big money and large corporations.

At the convention, former Speaker of the House Joseph Walker described how, due to the influence of money and the “great and powerful corporations,” government in Massachusetts and beyond was “fast becoming a plutocracy” or an “autocracy of wealth.” The ballot initiative process was necessary to ensure “that this government shall be brought back to the real control of the people of the Commonwealth.”

Other delegates at the convention pointed to “the enormous disparity in the distribution of wealth” and said the citizens’ initiative was needed to correct the overwhelming sense that “much of our legislation has been framed by lobbyists in their own offices or by skilled and trained lawyers in the offices of the corporations … “

Following lengthy debate, Article 48 added the citizens’ initiative to the Commonwealth’s Constitution, creating a citizen “check and balance” on the power of money and corporate interests in the legislative process. While imperfect, the process has allowed citizens to enact (or repeal) dozens of environmental, tax, health and other laws, even when the grassroots efforts have been vastly outspent in initiative campaigns.

So what has changed since 1917 and past decades of effective ballot initiative campaigns? The US Supreme Court has changed. The first blow was the 5-4 decision in a 1978 case in which Bank of Boston, Gillette and Digital Corporation sued Attorney General Frank Bellotti to strike down a Massachusetts law seeking to keep corporate money out of citizens’ initiatives. It was the first time in American history that the Supreme Court had struck down an election spending law intended to keep corporate money out of the political process.

The First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti decision had been limited by subsequent decisions, but then came the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. A new court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, resurrected the Bellotti decision with a vengeance. Now corporations have unprecedented First Amendment rights to spend unlimited money in elections and citizens’ initiatives, and a new and brasher model of corporate spending has emerged.

Here in Massachusetts, as the Boston Globe has reported, more than $8 million in corporate money was used by mid-October to oppose the expanded bottle bill initiative, sometimes in the dissemination of false information, while proponents were able to spend $716,000. In a casino law repeal effort, proponents spent $415,000 by mid-October, while casino corporate interests spent more than $6 million, to dominate the debate.

Recent experience in other states shows what might be coming soon. For example, Monsanto, DuPont, Pepsico and other corporations spent nearly $50 million in California to defeat a 2012 citizens effort to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms. The next year, the same corporations defeated a similar initiative in the state of Washington. Of the $20 million spent in Washington to defeat the GMO labeling initiative, only $600 (yes, $600) came from citizens or business in the state.

Since 1917, people in Massachusetts, regardless of political party, have worked to ensure an effective citizens’ initiative process would ease the effects of “plutocracy” and undue influence of “great and powerful corporations.”

Now, to do so once again, we need to restore our power to enact reasonable spending rules and return to Constitutional rights for human beings, not corporations. As in the last Gilded Age, we need Constitutional correction and a 28th Amendment to overturn Citizens United.

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