Frustrated by the inability of Congress to address the Citizens United decision, voters in Montana, Colorado and Massachusetts took the issue on themselves and by overwhelming majorities voiced their opinion that corporations should not have the same free speech rights as individuals.
In Montana, 75% of voters directed the state’s congressional delegation to propose a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United decision. In what seems eminently rational, the amendment stated that “the people of Montana regard money as property, not speech.” It went on to say that “there should be a level playing field in campaign spending that allows all individuals, regardless of wealth, to express their views to one another and their government.”
By similar margins, Colorado voters supported a referendum urging the state’s representatives in Congress to support efforts to overturn the Citizens United decision.
Finally, language appeared on the ballot in 170 Massachusetts towns that called on Congress to amend the Constitution to affirm that “corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of human beings,” and “both Congress and the states may place limits on political contributions and political spending.” Seventy-nine percent of voters who had the chance to weigh in on the ballot initiative supported it.
Although not binding, the initiatives gave voters a chance to express their disagreement with a system that gives corporations a louder political voice than individuals. Voters know that $1 billion in spending by SuperPACs and secretive nonprofits distorts the political process. They know the dangers of dark money include access to elected officials—the kind of access Chevron purchased with its $2.5 million contribution to a the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC supporting House Republicans. They know that there is a real threat to democracy when elected officials are willing to consider doing the bidding of deep-pocketed corporate donors in order to stave off future dark money attacks.
Although the ballot initiatives supported a constitutional amendment to address Citizens United, there can be no doubt that during the intervening period, voters would strongly favor greater disclosure of dark money through enactment of legislation like the DISCLOSE Act. Getting dark money out of politics is a multistep process. Voters in Montana, Colorado and Massachusetts took the first step.