Reclaiming Democracy of, by and for the people — through Citizens’ Initiative 735
by Ronna Loerch
Ronna Loerch is a retired RN. She is an activist currently serving as a local co-captain in Move To Amend – Whatcom for the I-735 campaign. Since retirement, she works on local sovereignty issues and other campaigns to restore democracy. Contributing authors for this article are Marian Beddill, Debbie Cantrell and Stephen Gockley.
People sense that our nation’s political processes are overwhelmed by unrestricted and undisclosed contributions made by large corporations and very wealthy individuals. Many fear these contributions influence electoral campaigns, and the candidates who are elected then make policies and laws that serve the financial interests of powerful supporters to the detriment of ordinary people. In Whatcom County and Washington State, however, ordinary people are working hard to reverse this trend and restore political power to us, the public.
How and when did this all start?
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a 5-4 decision in the landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This decision firmly established that corporations, unions and other artificially created legal entities are to be treated in our law as “persons” with the same fundamental rights and protections that real people enjoy. One of those rights, of course, is the First Amendment right to free speech in the political sphere.
The Citizens United decision emphasized that “speech” is not just the content of someone’s message but is also any use of money to spread that message far and wide. Logically, that means that we do not all have the same “free speech” rights; instead, we have as much (or as little) free speech as we can buy.
In addition, beyond contributions to individual candidates, the Court also allowed any “person” to funnel unlimited election-time funds to political groups called Super PACs and a growing number of non-profit advocacy organizations, as long as those organizations did not blatantly coordinate their advocacy with a specific candidate for office. What’s more, unlike electoral campaigns, these non-profit organizations do not have to disclose the identities of the “persons” who contributed or the amounts.
Citizens United overruled long-standing legal principles shaping how our democratic political process — of the people, by the people and for the people — should work. It also gutted existing bipartisan campaign finance laws enacted by Congress. That damage was compounded by subsequent Court decisions. One struck down a decades-old Montana state constitutional provision limiting campaign contributions in state elections and, in 2013, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission invalidated another cornerstone of federal campaign finance law with the ruling that campaign contributions to multiple candidates could not be limited.
The result of Citizens United and its offshoots has been deeply harmful to our electoral processes. Total campaign spending in 2012 jumped dramatically above that of recent preceding elections; spending in 2014 was many times more than that; and expectations for 2016 spending are far beyond what we have ever experienced before. More and more money in election cycles is now “dark” money, that which is completely hidden from interested voters (See sidebar).
Citizens United was only the most recent and most dramatic step in a long line of Supreme Court cases that have granted corporations greater economic and political power over the lives of individuals. Beginning with the 1886 case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the Supreme Court entrenched “corporate personhood” in law. Justices since have used this fictional and unhistorical construct to strike down hundreds of local, state and federal laws enacted to protect people and communities from harmful corporate practices. Armed with these “rights,” large corporations wield ever-increasing control over jobs, natural assets, politicians and even judges and the law.
These rulings reshaped the law, empowering these entities to deny citizens the right to full self-governance. For example, the Supreme Court has:
• Prohibited routine governmental inspections of corporate property without a warrant or prior permission, even though having to schedule such visits would permit a company to hide threats to public health and safety. (Marshall v Barlow’s, 1978)
• Prevented consumers from knowing what’s in their food by striking down state laws requiring companies to disclose product origins (International Dairy v. Amnestoy, 1996).
• Prohibited citizens from enacting progressive taxes on chain stores to defend their local businesses and communities from corporate encroachment. (Liggett v. Lee, 1933)
• Struck down state laws restricting corporate spending on ballot initiatives and referenda, enabling corporations to block citizen action through what, theoretically, is the purest form of democracy. (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti).
What is Washington State doing to counteract this threat to Democracy of, by and for the People?
Because Citizens United was a U.S. Supreme Court decision, it will take a constitutional amendment to reverse it. Sixteen states have already enacted calls for an amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. In Washington State, a citizens-action group was formed a few years ago to bring this amendment into being, as a part of the national “Move To Amend.” It is named WAmend, a practical abbreviation of “Washington-Move-to-Amend”. In 2013, WAmend created a statewide Citizens’-Initiative and collected signatures in hope of placing it on the general election ballot that year. As is common with major new proposals, not enough signatures were collected in that first attempt.
In April 2015, WAmend launched another initiative, I-735, which calls for a constitutional amendment limiting money in election campaigns. It would also define “person” in the U. S. Constitution as a “human person”. If successful, Washington will become the 17th state to support such an amendment.
Adopting this amendment to the Constitution will reset the balance point between corporations, big money and the public.
As Bellingham City Councilman Michael Lilliquist put it in a June 2012 editorial, “the solution is not to abolish corporations. The solution is simply to put them in their proper place, below the people and below the state. Corporations should still exist and have rights, but those should not be Constitutional rights.”
How has Whatcom County been supporting WAmend?
On June 4, 2012 the Bellingham City Council passed a resolution stating, “That the City Council of the City of Bellingham hereby supports amending the United States Constitution to declare that corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of natural persons, and further to ensure that the expenditure of corporate money to influence the electoral process is no longer a form of constitutionally protected speech and may be subject to justifiable regulation for the common good, and the City Council calls on Congress to begin the process of amending the United States Constitution” (https://movetoamend.org/resolution/bellingham-city-council-0). It was introduced by council members Michael Lilliquist and Seth Fleetwood and passed unanimously and “enthusiastically” by the council.
In fall of 2012, a group in Whatcom County formed “MTA-Whatcom,” which operates as a local unit of WAmend. It is a group of concerned citizens who volunteer their time and resources to this initiative campaign. We kicked off the group’s formation with a Barnstorming Event from the national Move To Amend sponsoring Ashley Sanders, who gave a mesmerizing speech about the history of corporations in America and their fight for “personhood.” We were not deterred by the failure of I-1329 and vowed to renew our efforts with I-735.
In fall 2014, we had a free showing of the movie “Pay to Play” at the Bellingham Library to bring attention to the issue of money in elections. This movie documents the large amounts of money needed to run for office largely due to the Citizens United ruling.
On Jan. 20, 2015, the anniversary of the Citizens United ruling, we held banners on three of the I-5 overpasses to bring attention to the court’s decision five years ago. After dark, we projected light images on the granary building that said, “corporations are not people” and “Democracy is for people not corporations” to let people know that we are fighting to overturn this decision.
In February 2015, we hosted David Cobb, the president of Move-to Amend, on his Barnstorming Tour across the country. Over 100 people came to hear him speak and learn about this topic.
On May 2, 2015, we held the Campaign Launch Event for the I-735 petition drive. We signed up volunteer signature-gatherers, who picked up materials to help gather signatures. Over 50 people volunteered at the kick off and in less than a week, volunteers gathered hundreds of signatures. We are on a roll!
How will I-735 help Whatcom County/Washington if it were to pass?
Right now outside money drowns out the voices of local citizens. According to Public Citizen, the Citizens United ruling caused unprecedented amounts of money to flood into elections (http://www.citizen.org/documents/CU-One-Year-After.pdf.) Most of this money is dark money, spent on indirect expenditures like TV ads and mailings. These types of efforts drown out the voices of local citizens. Reversing the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling will help give power to voters of our county and state. This will allow us to take a more active role in the decision-making that affects our local region. Local voters tend to favor sustainable policies that protect workers, health, resources, and the environment of the area. After all, we live here. We, the citizens of Whatcom County and not large corporations who may not reside here should have direct control over decisions that affect us.
“Since there is no way to petition the Federal Congress directly,” Mr. Lilliquist said, “we in Washington have the right of the initiative process to declare that the people of Washington desire the Federal Congress to act.” He personally collected dozens of signatures during the last campaign, I-1329, which did not get the necessary signatures to be placed on the ballot.
“Though we fell short (we met our goal in Whatcom County) the people with whom he came into contact were overwhelmingly opposed to the Citizens United ruling and wished to overturn this decision,” he said.
Consequences of Citizens United
Following are some examples of how the 2010 Supreme Court Citizen’s United vs FEC decision changed the funding of elections.
Top 10 union political spending during the 2012 election (PAC, individual, outside) was $153,473,251 while Koch spending for the same 2012 election (PAC, individual, outside) was $412,670,666.1
DelBene spent $2,256,792 on her 2013-14 campaign with 7 percent coming from small donations, 42 percent from large individual contributions and 49 percent coming from PAC contributions. Larsen spent $1,070,866 on his 2013-14 campaign with 4 percent coming from small individual contributions, 21 percent from Large individual contributions and 75 percent from PAC contributions.2
“Nationally we just spent nearly $4 billion – yes billion – for the 2014 elections and achieved the lowest voter turnout in a midterm since 1942. Sadly, PACs and independent groups were estimated to have spent more than half a billion dollars on harsh, negative, attack advertising.” 3
“A network of conservative advocacy groups backed by Charles and David Koch aims to spend a staggering $889 million in advance of the next White House election, part of an expansive strategy to build on its 2014 victories that may involve jumping into the Republican primaries.” 4
4. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/koch-backed-network-aims-to-spend-nearly-1-billion-on-2016-elections 2015/01/26/77a44654-a513-11e4-a06b-9df2002b86a0_story.html
How You Can Help With Initiative 735
If you want to volunteer to help gather signatures:
You can pick up a petition package at our next MTA-Whatcom meeting.
If you want to volunteer to help gather signatures:
You can pick up a petition package at our next MTA-Whatcom meeting.
• 2nd and 4th Wednesdays at Terra Organic and Natural Foods (Public Market) 1530 Cornwall Avenue. Find us in the conference room in the back of the store.
If you don’t see a volunteer look for petitions on the counter at local businesses such as:
• Quicksilver Photo Lab, 1130 Cornwall
• Terra Organic and Natural Foods, 1530 Cornwall Avenue,
• Greenes Market on Northwest Road,
• Yoga Northwest in Fairhaven,
• Field of Greens farm stand at corner of Kale and Everson Rd. in Everson,
• Mallards Ice Cream on Railroad Avenue,
• The Bagelry on Railroad Avenue.
Anyone who wishes to join the team may contact one of our MTA-Whatcom crew:
• Debbie Cantrell – (360) 920-0981 or
• Ronna Loerch – (360) 305-2936.