In a presidential primary season marked by the rise of "Super PACs" and an explosion of corporate spending in elections, Vermont voters have raised their voices against special interest money in politics. On Super Tuesday, 63 out of a possible 65 towns in Vermont called on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C. and to address the issue of corporate personhood and money in politics.
The 2010 Citizens United decision, which Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders labeled "one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court has ever handed down," struck down bipartisan clean election laws and declared that Congress could not limit so-called "independent" spending. After Citizens United, the 2010 fall elections were the most expensive in U.S. history, with more spending by outside groups than from the candidates themselves. The 2012 election cycle is on track to be the most expensive yet.
Voters in towns across Vermont, through the "Town Meeting Day" ballot, took to the polls to pass resolutions calling on Congress to amend the United States constitution to overturn Citizens United and restore limits on corporate campaign spending.
"Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, Town Meeting Day voters understood that corporations are not people. The resounding results will send a strong message that corporations and billionaires should not be allowed to buy candidates and elections with unlimited, undisclosed spending on political campaigns," Sanders said in response to Vermont's vote.
Citizens United Has Opened Spending Floodgate
Citizens United paved the way for the rise of Super PACs, which can raise unlimited funds from corporations and others, and opened the door for corporations to secretly funnel money through non-profit groups into political races. Since the decision, deep-pocketed CEOs and corporations have filtered many millions of dollars through Super PACs like American Action Network and secretly-funded non-profit groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS.
The decision also gave rise to candidate-specific Super PACs which don't "officially" coordinate with candidate's campaigns, but were started by former campaign staff. Super PACs, unlike official campaigns, are not constrained by campaign finance rules which limit the size of contributions. Some examples of candidate-specific Super PACs include President Obama's "Priorities USA Action" and Mitt Romney's "Restore Our Future."
"Candidate-specific Super PACs are nothing more than an end-run around existing contribution limits," said Paul S. Ryan, FEC Program Director at the Campaign Legal Center. "The Super PACs are simply shadow candidate committees. Million-dollar contributions to the Super PACs pose just as big a threat of corruption as would million-dollar contributions directly to candidates."
National Efforts to Amend the Constitution
The Vermont citizen's initiative was undertaken by a coalition of groups under the umbrella of "Vermonters Say Corporations Are Not People." Efforts to undo the Supreme Court's decision have been fueled by national groups like Move to Amend, Public Citizen, Common Cause and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. CMD was a founding board member of Move to Amend.
Sanders has introduced his own amendment to Congress, the Saving American Democracy Amendment, which would strip corporations of personhood and their right to make campaign contributions or election expenditures, make them subject to regulation by the people, and restore the power of Congress and states to regulate election spending. Florida Rep. Ted Deutsch introduced a companion amendment in the House. CMD endorsed the Deutsch/Sanders proposal as the most powerful amendment to date in Congress.
Vermont Leading the Nation
Sanders praised citizens in his home state for their "Town Meeting Day" actions: "Vermont is helping to lead the nation on this important issue. Real people across our state stood up today to protect our democracy. I am very proud of what they have done," he said.
*The above piece has been updated to reflect incoming polling data.
The above photograph comes from Shutterstock Images.