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Stopping the Big Money Takeover of US Elections and Government

We must empower people rather than money in our political process.

(Image: erhui1979 / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images)

“A prescription for disaster.”

That’s how opponents described a 2017 Ohio ballot initiative in their television ads, claiming the law would increase the cost of prescription drugs, when in fact the law was intended to decrease drug prices. What the ads didn’t say is that they were financed by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an association of for-profit pharmaceutical companies that spent more than $58 million — more than three-and-a-half times the spending of the proponents of the initiative — to defeat the citizen initiative designed to lower the price of prescription drugs.

The corporate-funded defeat of the Ohio initiative is part of a pattern. According to a report from Public Citizen, corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars in state ballot initiatives and usually win by spending 33 times more than the opposition, on average. This kind of domination of corporate money is not “free speech,” as the Supreme Court maintains in decisions such as Citizen United v. FEC; it is corporate power run amok.

Whether the proposed Ohio prescription drug law is good or bad should be decided by the citizens of Ohio in a fair process. Global corporations who don’t vote should not be allowed to spend unlimited money on deceptive advertising designed to confuse voters and obfuscate issues in order to boost their bottom-line.

There is an irony in how much corporations now dominate the ballot initiative process, which is in place in 26 states. Originally, Americans in many states adopted the citizen ballot initiative in the early 20th century to combat the corruption of Gilded Age corporations controlling state legislatures.

In Massachusetts, for example, the leading proponent of the citizen initiative, former Speaker of the House Joseph Walker argued that, “We are ceasing to be a democracy in any true sense of the word.” Instead, the political system had become “an autocracy of wealth” where “special privileges and special favors have been granted to those who have had the influence to get them,” and “much of our legislation has been framed by lobbyists [or] in the offices of the corporations.” Walker’s words of 1917 ring true today.

In 1978, for the first time in US history, the Supreme Court created a “free speech” right of corporations to spend money to influence the outcome of state ballot votes. While conservative William Rehnquist and liberal Thurgood Marshall alike dissented, a 5-4 majority in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti struck down a Massachusetts law seeking to keep corporate money out of citizen initiatives. Then in 2010, with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court went much further, decreeing that corporations and unions have a free-speech right to spend unlimited money to influence the outcome of any elections.

As a result, corporations, a few big unions and even fewer super-wealthy people have spent over $40 billion since 2010 to gain unprecedented influence in federal and state elections and ballot initiatives. To restore citizens to the center of our government, we urgently need to amend the United States Constitution to require Congress and the state legislatures to regulate the role of money in elections and governance to ensure transparency, prevent corruption and protect against the buying of access to or influence over representatives.

American Promise is leading the national cross-partisan campaign to do exactly that. In 2017, Nevada became the 19th state to formally call for this constitutional amendment, and nearly 800 towns have passed similar resolutions. In a fitting tribute to Americans who adopted the citizens ballot initiative reform 100 years ago, American Promise is using the initiative process as a key part of the campaign for what will be the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.

To date, four states — Montana, Washington, California and Colorado — have used the ballot initiative to give millions of voters the opportunity to weigh in and voice strong cross-partisan support for the 28th Amendment. Now more than 90,000 citizens in Massachusetts have called for a similar initiative, and thousands of volunteers are gathering signatures and organizing 28th Amendment drives in Wyoming, Florida and several other states.

This campaign reclaims the original purpose of the citizen initiative while working toward the urgently needed 28th Amendment to empower the people, rather than money in our political process. The Massachusetts People Govern Not Money initiative is using the American Promise model to create a non-partisan, all-volunteer “Citizen Commission to advance the policy of Massachusetts in favor of amending the U.S. Constitution.” The proposed law ensures that the appointment process is transparent, open to all and results in a commission that is truly representative of the citizens.

In a time of suspicion about media, dark money and foreign intrigue, the proposed Citizen Commission will provide credible information to the people about the role of money in our politics, the best approach to the 28th Amendment and to what extent our representatives are working across partisan lines to advance the amendment. And by tapping the citizen volunteers who will serve, the commission will not cost taxpayers a dime.

This Citizen Commission may well be a model for many states, and the drive to the 28th Amendment is renewing the promise of the original ballot initiative reform: so that “this government shall be brought back to the real control of the people.”

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