The Corporate Assault on Direct Democracy

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The direct democracy of ballot initiatives – where voters get to vote yes or no, without any politicians in the way – is a treasured part of the fabric of 24 states and many more cities. But around the country, there’s been a disturbing trend this year: When initiatives threaten corporate interests, lawyers run to court to prevent voters from even getting the chance to vote.

In St. Louis, a citizens’ campaign collected signatures for a bold initiative that would address both climate change and municipal funding problems, by banning special tax breaks or sweetheart loans to fossil fuel companies (such as Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company) and their major business partners. Supporters collected over 22,000 signatures – more than 10 percent of St. Louis voters. But before the city could print ballots, corporate lawyers rushed to court asking a judge to block the election, claiming that the law would unfairly discriminate against the coal company and its business partners. The judge agreed, and the case is now under appeal. Meanwhile, the voters are still waiting for their chance to say yea or nay.

Over in California, clean-government groups persuaded the legislature to put a different type of measure on the ballot. The measure – known as Prop 49 – would ask the voters whether California should formally ask Congress to overturn the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision (which held that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections) by a constitutional amendment. The opponents of reform had good reason to be worried: Similar measures have passed in Colorado and Montana by well over 70 percent. So it’s unsurprising that opponents sued to stop the vote. And in August, the California Supreme Court did just that. The chief justice dissented, objecting to the court “taking the extraordinary step of removing the measure from the ballot, thereby disenfranchising the voters,” but she stood alone. The court will hear from the lawyers again this winter, but the voters are still waiting.

It doesn’t always end this way. On the Hawaiian island of Maui, people concerned about the spread of genetically-engineered crops collected signatures for an initiative to put a temporary moratorium on cultivating these crops pending an environmental and public health study. They collected signatures from an astonishing 21 percent of voters, and the measure was certified. So of course the lawyers poured in, claiming the initiative was “misleading.” But the judge rejected that argument, explaining that “it is in the public interest to allow Maui voters to express their views at the polls this November,” and expressing bewilderment at the plaintiffs’ “willingness to halt the entire Maui County election process.”

Of course, initiative opponents will have their say. Monsanto, a major agribusiness corporation, promised “an aggressive campaign against this initiative.” A trade group committed at least $400,000 to defeat the initiative. An early sign came in September, when opponents paid for $80,000 worth of TV ads in one week – maybe not a big media buy in New York, but huge on Maui.

So initiative supporters have their work cut out for them. It will be hard for them to make their case against such well-funded corporate opposition. But, unlike in St. Louis and California, at least the voters will get to decide.

We often hear that “corporations have rights” or that we don’t need campaign finance reforms because “the voters can decide.” But if lawyers keep running to court to block a vote whenever corporate interests are threatened, our precious right to vote may become meaningless. As a nation, we fought too hard for that right to let Peabody or Monsanto take it away.