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My Turn: For Sen. Ayotte, a chance to be on the right side of history

Last modified: 9/6/2014 11:25:01 PM
A century ago in 1914, the United States Senate voted, 35-34, to approve a constitutional amendment that would right a historical wrong denying half our population a voice in politics. A few months later, the measure died in the House. But the vote resounded.

Five years later, as America emerged from World War I, Congress took up the measure once again. In short order, the House and Senate approved and the states ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For the first time in our history, women universally had the right to vote.

We have come a long way since then. Thanks to the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements, most women and people of color are no longer legally barred from casting ballots. New Hampshire, in particular, can be proud. As of 2012, our governor and all four members of our congressional delegation are women – a first among the 50 states. And turnout among women now exceeds that of men.

But having the right to vote does not guarantee your voice will be heard in our democracy. Long before American citizens go to the polls, there is a “money primary,” where money takes the place of votes in deciding who will run for public office.

As New Hampshire’s own former senator Warren Rudman observed, “Increasingly, candidates’ qualifications are being measured by the size of their wallet, not the strength of their ideas.”

This primary, like the “whites only” primaries of yore, is not open to you or me. For the vast majority of Americans who lack the financial means to invest in political campaigns, this primary is out of reach and out of mind. Instead, the money primary is the preserve of the fraction of 1 percent who provide the millions of dollars it takes to run for office. Nine times out of 10, the candidate who raises the most money goes on to win the election.

Making matters worse, the Roberts Court has repeatedly struck down decades’ worth of campaign finance regulations shielding our public servants from the undue influence of special interest money. When the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations and unions could spend without limit to influence elections, they were not acting to uphold the First Amendment, which every American holds dear.

As the late Doris “Granny D” Haddock, a New Hampshire native, observed, “When money is speech, speech isn’t free.”

Now, we are faced with another turning point in history. Tomorrow, at least 50 U.S. senators will vote in support for Senate Joint Resolution 19, the proposed constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and ensure that all American citizens have the right to make their voices heard in politics.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte could be the 51st.

Like the fight for women’s suffrage and Civil Rights, this movement to ensure an open and accountable democracy will be neither quick nor easy. A simple majority of senators will not suffice to pass a constitutional amendment, and the House of Representatives is all but certain to stand by. But like the Senate vote for women’s suffrage in 1914, tomorrow’s vote will also resound.

Already, 10,500 New Hampshire citizens have signed petitions asking Ayotte to support the amendment. Thousands more have taken to the streets in the tradition of “Granny D” by walking across the state this January and July to declare their independence from big money, as part of the N.H. Rebellion. More than 50 New Hampshire towns passed warrant articles this spring calling on Ayotte and the entire congressional delegation to amend the Constitution. And across the nation, 16 state legislatures have followed suit.

The American people understand that politics is not meant to be the preserve of special interests. It is the business of all the people, rich and poor alike. We urge Ayotte to join her fellow women in the New Hampshire Congressional delegation and vote to overturn Citizens United. Our democratic rights as a free people are at stake.

(Daniel Weeks is executive director of the Concord-based nonprofit Open Democracy, whose New Hampshire Rebellion Campaign is seeking to continue the walk of Granny D for campaign finance reform. He writes on democracy and poverty at PoorInDemocracy.org.)


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