‘Petition on steroids’ means stamping dollars to get money out of politics

Last modified: 3/16/2015 3:26:31 PM
Setting aside the ice cream, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s spends his time these days working on solving an issue that he says has a chance to send the government as we know it “down the tubes” and replace it with a plutocracy.

His method is a petition on steroids: stamping dollar bills with messages like, “Not to be used for bribing politicians,” that he estimates have already made 87 million impressions across the country.

The focus for the next year is on New Hampshire, where 800 people have purchased stamps. Cohen and the rest of his nonprofit, the Stamp Stampede, intend to mark 10 percent of the bills in the state before the 2016 presidential primary, and to do so they’re looking to get an additional 6,000 stampers on board.

The Stamp Stampede is organizing with local businesses, like the Common Man Restaurants, to have booths where you can stamp your bills, and with a church to stamp all the money that lands in the collection plate. In an interview with the Monitor on Thursday, Cohen said he’s soon headed to Los Angeles, among the other appearances he and Jerry Greenfield make around the country, to attempt to get TV writers to have your favorite characters stamping bills as they progress the plot with dialogue.

What he wants is top lawmakers talking about ways to reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the controversial Supreme Court decision that found the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation.

Merely returning to a pre-Citizens United environment isn’t enough, Cohen said. He supports a system like that in New York City in which if a candidate agrees to accept only small-dollar donations – $100 or $200 – those donations would be matched six times over by the government. A candidate with big donors could opt out, but “what’s happened in New York City is that the match is so rich, just about everybody opts in.”

Dan Weeks, the executive director of Open Democracy, added that in Connecticut, for instance, which has a similar law, total spending has decreased, candidates face pressure from voters to opt in, and elections have been opened up to a completely different class of everyday people.

Contrary to the belief of half the public, Cohen said, stamping bills isn’t illegal unless you intend to distort the bill to the point that it’s “unfit to be reissued,” according to federal law. Stamp buyers are instructed on best stamping practices, including a tip to avoid the center third of a bill, since that’s where Cohen believes federal money scanners are searching for points of altered light reflectivity and taking offenders out of circulation.

For the Stampede’s purposes, their intent is for the bill to stay in circulation for as long as possible. That’s part of the point, Cohen said, in that the average bill will reach 875 people in its life. To the best of his knowledge, Cohen said, the bills aren’t being taken out of circulation “if they’re stamped properly.” On stampstampede.org, almost all the prominently displayed bills are stamped improperly.

“We have to change that,” Cohen said.

Using the website’s assumptions – that each stamp sold, or about 32,000, is used to mark about three bills a day all year – about 35 million bills a year would be marked. Assuming those are all $1 bills, which are the cheapest to produce at about 5 cents apiece, if every bill were kicked out of circulation by federal money-scanning machines, the cost would be $1.75 million a year to replace them.

Cohen said if that’s happening, “They should recalibrate their machines. They shouldn’t kick them out.”

The campaign to get money out of politics has the backing of 16 states and 150 members of congress, the website said. In New Hampshire, 63 towns have passed warrant articles urging action on the issue.

When the Stamp Stampede began about two years ago, Cohen said, it was intended as a way for people who were already interested in the issue to make themselves heard. But as momentum grows, it’s surpassing its original intent.

“It’s becoming an on-ramp for people that are just starting,” he said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)

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