Activists statewide propose warrants to get corporate money out of politics
Maureen Quinn says big money in politics is a threat to democracy. And she hopes her fellow Deerfield residents will join her Tuesday in supporting a warrant article asking federal and state leaders to put a stop to it.
“I see our political system going down a really dangerous path. It’s not the people of this country any longer – the voters of the country – who are deciding what issues are being brought to the fore and given attention by legislators both at the state and federal level,” Quinn said.
Deerfield is one of at least 56 New Hampshire communities that will vote on warrant articles at Town Meeting aimed at dismantling a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, better known as the Citizens United case, that allowed for unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions in federal elections. The Coalition for Open Democracy and Public Citizen, two groups that oppose money in politics, are organizing the effort and have helped citizens across the state craft petitions with similar language.
The Deerfield warrant article calls on the state Legislature to seek a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right of citizens and representatives to regulate political spending and “clarifies that constitutional rights were established for people, not corporations.” It urges New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to support such an amendment. Sixteen states have formally called for a similar constitutional amendment. There is also a bill in the state Senate that would create a committee tasked with reviewing other state’s amendments and making recommendations to New Hampshire’s congressional delegation about what approaches it should support.
New Hampshire communities pursuing this at town meeting include Henniker, Tilton, Warner, Northwood, Webster, Bristol, Barnstead and Andover. Conway passed this warrant article last year, making it the first New Hampshire community to do so, said Olivia Zink of the Coalition for Open Democracy. The citizens who are proposing these warrant articles say calling for a change at the local level is key to showing the power of grassroots democracy.
“This is consistent with New Hampshire’s philosophy because we really believe in local government and government by the people,” Quinn said.
There are two major types of political donations: Donations that go directly to candidates and their campaigns and donations that go to independent groups, known as political action committees. Before 2010, corporations and labor unions couldn’t donate directly to candidates or to independent groups for political purposes, and there were limits on how much individuals could contribute.
The Citizens United case overturned the ban on donations to outside groups, allowing corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals to donate unlimited amounts of money to independent expenditure groups. This gave rise to what are now known as Super PACs. These Super PACs cannot donate directly to a candidate or campaign, but they can create their own advertisements supporting or opposing candidates. Because of this decision, the 2012 presidential election became the most expensive election in history.
Sally Embley, a Webster resident and member of the League of Women Voters, said political spending has always been an issue. But Citizens United opened the floodgates to a new kind of money that is making the problem even worse, she said.
“Unless you get to the root of the issue, which is the big-money corruption angle, this is not going to change,” she said.
Warner resident Michael Franklin said treating corporations as people gives special interests undue influence in elections and on important issues. That, in turn, can put a chilling effect on others who may want to speak up. Franklin said the best solution would be for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its Citizens United ruling. That may be unlikely, he said. A constitutional amendment is a long-shot too, but he said calling for one will open up a serious discussion at the local and state level about the issue.
“The only way (an amendment) seems at all likely is if there’s a lot of grassroots pressure on the federal folks to do that,” he said.
Jonah Minkoff-Zern, a senior organizer with Public Citizen’s Democracy is for the People Campaign, said his group set a goal of getting this warrant article on 20 town ballots. Instead, they’ve found interest in more than 50 communities.
“The response has been just tremendous,” he said. “It blossomed way more than we would have expected.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)