Only People Can Vote -- Only People Should Finance Campaigns

Guest piece by Greg Colvin, Campaign for America's Future

Introducing the Citizens Election Amendment, Version 1.0.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case exactly one year ago tomorrow, saying that the Constitution gives Corporations influence American elections with unlimited spending, people have been asking "how can we amend the Constitution to put this right?"

In this country, each person has one vote, no matter whether you are rich or poor. And it is illegal to buy or sell a person's vote. So why do we allow electoral influence to be bought and sold? Why has politics in America become a commodity in an economic marketplace, where the richest corporations, business associations, unions, and individuals can buy enormous leverage on the outcome of our elections?

It is not enough to declare that corporations are not legally persons, or to give Congress and the states the power to regulate the political contributions and expenditures of corporations and labor unions. Those are only partial remedies.

Past attempts to regulate campaign finance in America have been like the "squishy balloon" -- squeeze it in one place, it pops out another. Limit what goes to candidates, it goes to parties. Clamp down on party fundraising, it goes to independent 527s. Disclose donors to 527s, the unlimited, anonymous money goes to 501(c)(4)'s. All the while, wealthy individuals still spend huge amounts to seek their own elections and force their opponents to try to match them.

The only way to drive big money entirely out of politics is to adjust our system of campaign finance to the scale of the individual voter, who has one vote to cast for each office or measure, and no more. The only source of money to influence American elections should be the individual citizen and, at the option of the federal or state government, public financing.

Congress and the States, if they choose to, should be able to limit the amount each citizen can donate or spend to influence a specific vote, including a candidate's own personal expenditures in pursuit of public office. This could be capped at a modest amount per vote, like the median annual household income in America, currently about $50,000. Why should anyone be allowed to contribute or spend more than that to persuade others how to vote?

What follows is a draft of a Twenty-Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enable a thorough, citizen-based, reform of our campaign finance laws. Some may say this is far-fetched, but it may serve as a marker showing how we could—if we wanted to—completely prevent corporate and personal wealth from dominating elections in our free republic.

Amendment XXVIII: "Citizens Election Amendment" Version 1.0

Section 1. Only natural persons who are citizens of the United States may make contributions and expenditures to influence the exercise of a citizen's right to vote, although Congress and the States may also institute systems of public financing for election campaigns.

Section 2. Congress and the States shall have concurrent power to implement this article by measures that may set limits on the amounts of each citizen's contributions and expenditures, including a candidate's own spending, and authorize citizens to establish committees to receive, spend, and publicly disclose the sources of contributions and expenditures, and by other appropriate legislation.

Points to note:

  • Campaign donations and spending by all sources other than individual citizens would be eliminated: corporations (whether for-profit or nonprofit), labor unions, business associations, banks and trusts, foreign donors and multi-national conglomerates, but public financing would be permitted.
  • The amendment would apply to all citizen votes held at all levels of government—federal, state, and local—on the nomination and election of candidates for public office and on ballot measures as well.
  • In order to finance election campaigns, the political parties, labor unions, business associations, and other interest groups would have to become skilled aggregators, convincing individual citizens to donate what they could afford within such limits as Congress or the states may enact. Citizens sharing common political interests could aggregate their donations in committees, which could be controlled by candidates or parties or could be independent.
  • Hopefully, Congress and the States would move toward a single nationwide interpretation of the phrase "to influence the exercise of a citizen's right to vote," such as the Internal Revenue Service definition of "political intervention" that applies to all tax-exempt organizations and taxpayers, if that standard could be clarified and improved. (Colvin, "Political Tax Law after Citizens United: A Time for Reform," The Norman A. Sugarman Memorial Lecture in Nonprofit Law at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, April 2010, published at 66 Exempt Orgs Tax Rev 71 (July 2010), and video at
  • This amendment expands, elevates, and protects the rights of the citizen voter to be the sole source of campaign funds, ensuring the democratic character of our elections.

Greg Colvin is an attorney in San Francisco specializing in tax-exempt law, including political and lobbying activities of nonprofit organizations, who has written and lectured on the subject for over 20 years.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.


1. I'm concerned about the 'natural persons' part in your Section 1. Wouldn't it be safer to say something like 'individual person'? Or (as mundane as it may sound) perhaps 'an individual human being of voting age, registered, anda US Citizen'? Frankly I think only people who are legally US Citizens, and actually registered to vote should be allowed to donate. 2. To me, the flipside to election campaign donation is lobbying, which occurs regardless of the election cycle. A non-individual entity can still 'arrange' time with a respective member of Congress in order to essentially hand over money in exchange for a desired vote (yes it's illegal, but I'm concerned that such actions will be more covert). In my mind, real election donation limits and lobbying controls must be tied together. One without the other would make each individually powerless. I would suggest a third Article that specifically bars lobbying member of Congress, the President, or on behalf of a non-individual entity. 3. I also have an issue with the whole concept of 'systems of public financing for election campaigns'. The rules for obtaining financing from this system should be very clear. And I think there should be a clear definition of what that system consists of, and access to it should be carefully monitored by a public mechanism to prevent manipulation by non-individual entities.

I don't understand why Union leaders can give Billions to Democrats, yet it's not ok for Corporations to give to what accounts to both parties. I believe it's 53/47 in favor of republicans?

The website, FollowtheMoney, documents the contributions by corporations to political parties for the last 11 years on <a href="">this</a> web page. It shows that Democrats received more from corporations than Republicans did in 9 of those 11 years. The problem is not JUST the Democrats or JUST the Republicans, it is BOTH parties. The majority of BOTH parties have sold their soul, our country and our Constitution to corporate and non-profit lobbyists in exchange for MASSIVE amounts of cash to ensure their own re-election. Not only did they take those BRIBES (because that is exactly what a "campaign donation" is since politicians can, upon retiring, convert their "campaign warchest" into personal use) they also BRIBE the voters by using "earmarks". My Senator, Ben Nelson, has earmarked $1.8 BILLION dollars for Nebraska, which is about $1,000 per man, woman and child in the state. The corruption is so complete some offices are considered part of a politician's estate, to be passed on to their anointed heir. Most politicians don't arrive in office as millionaires, but most leave office as such. Not a bad trick on less than $250,000 per year. And if they retire from office they have a very nice income for the rest of their life, along with an annual 10% cost of living raise and a complete medial package that has no co-pay or exclusions. And, those benefits pass to the spouse when the politician dies. Politicians don't eat their own dog food. If their terms in office were limited, they had to pay into and use the same social security retirement system that the taxpayers are forced to use, buy their own health insurance, and they could not "retire" from office and receive what current politicians get, perhaps, just perhaps, this nonsense would stop. President Obama won an overwhelming mandate from the voters to institute single-payer universal health care in this country. The Democrats had a majority in both houses, a setting president, and a willing Supreme Court. Yet, he lost that battle. Why? Because his OWN PARTY sold him out in exchange for lobbyists contributions. This amendment, or measures suggested by the "Fix Congress First" website, are an imperative if the citizens of this country are going to get their country back. Otherwise, it will be more faux grass-roots movements like the "Tea Party", a Republican scam, driving us to make our government the complete Cabal it almost is now.

In my recollection, this was the most disgusting decision the Supreme Court has handed down. They have proven they are pro-dough, and to hell with everyone else.

I'm a frequent commenter on some news and political sites, and anybody who has seen my comments on this topic in the past year may have noticed that on many occasions I have suggested that only registered individual voters be allowed to contribute to campaigns and political organizations. Such an approach wouldn't solve all the problems, of course, and lobbyists and lawyers would immediately start looking for loopholes, but I think it would take some pretty fancy dancing to find a way to register Monsanto, GE, Halliburton, et. al. to vote.

the word 'natural' must be there because of the history of corporate personhood, 'natural' person being the legal term for a human being and 'artificial' person for a corporation. read thom hartmann's 'unequal protection' if you want a good historical overview of corporate personhood in america. as for union donations, they were included in the citizens united decision and you're absolutely right in thinking that it's bad news right along with corporate moneyspeech. money is not speech, simple as that.

consider more narrowly defining "person", leave out natural which means nothing, to "only persons, being living, breathing human beings,

I would like to see money eliminated altogether from politics. I would like for every city, county....and national television station have one station "Provided" by Federal government....with nothing but debates for political candidates, national elections, house, legislative, congress and supreme court activities. Local governments could reserve bandwidth for a "sister station" for nothing but local town meetings, debates, and local issues. The operation of which would be overseen by elected officials from the THREE political parties.....and 10 Constitutional Activist and supportive Natural born American citizens (of at least 5 generations)....with squeaky clean records for ethics and honesty. BTW....that should be a requirement to vote, hold office, or run for President, also. Both parents natural born here in the USA for 5 generations. This would eliminate this mess we have all inherited. Money corrupts, power corrupts...... eliminate both!

...that both of your parents, all four of your grandparents, all eight of your great grandparents, all 16 of your great great grand parents, and all 32 of your great great great grandparents were born in this country? No hanky-panky with the German handyman for any of those grandmas? See, to keep our great nation's citizenry truly pure, the burden of proof is on you as far as I'm concerned. So that's 62 birth certificates, in addition to your own, I expect to see from you.

Mutternich.....not true dearheart. One only needs a good birth certificate which lists parents names and place of birth. Mine does. I have been abroad and had my "papers" OUR military. They held me up for 2 hours while they called the US to verify my records of my being a US citizen. They also asked me who my grandparents were and other information only I would know. Our government has much more information on us...than we can imagine....depends only on how deep they care to dig to check it. If people don't have papers....they probably are not a "natural" born US citizen. The government is trying very hard to destroy the paper trail in recent years. For many reasons.... just look at Obamas' paperwork....hidden at a cost of millions to keep it secret. WHY? What is he hiding and from whom?