“If we succeed in passing I-166, we can send a clear message across the United States and hopefully move it forward,” said James Ellis when talking about the proposed Prohibition on Corporate Contributions and Expenditures in Montana Elections Act.
Ellis, a Montana State University Billings student, was part of a panel discussion that included C.B. Pearson from the Stand with Montanans group that wrote Initiative 166, MSU Billings assistant professor of public administration Paul Pope, and Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings. The event was hosted by MSU Billings at the College of Education.
More than 32,000 signatures were collected to put I-166 on this year’s 2012 ballot. The initiative states in Section 3: “(a) that the people of Montana regard money as property, not speech; (b) that the people of Montana regard the rights under the United States Constitution as rights of human beings, not rights of corporations.”
Since 1912, Montana had laws to limit corporate money and to lessen their influence on elections. Montana law, however, contrasted with the 2010 Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, which essentially decided it was unconstitutional for Congress to limit corporate or union expenditures for elections because that would limit free speech.
In October 2010, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 5-2 in a Montana case, the American Tradition Partnership Inc. vs. Attorney General of Montana, to continue a ban on corporations from spending on political campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of ATP on June 25 of this year.
ATP is “dedicated to fighting environmental extremism and promoting responsible development and management of land, water, and natural resources,” according to its website at americantradition.org.
To override the Supreme Court, supporters of the ban on corporate speech and influence aim to eventually pass a constitutional amendment making it explicitly clear that corporations can be regulated because they’re not people.
While talking about his proposed People’s Rights Amendment, Congressman Jim McGovern said about his own proposed 28th Amendment: “Corporations are not people. They do not breathe. They do not have children. They do not die in war. They are artificial entities which we the people create and, as such, we govern them, not the other way around.”
Ellis noted that adding an amendment would be a monumental task since it would need two-thirds support in both the Congress and Senate. “It’s a very difficult and lengthy process, and it’ll take years,” he said. “However, the public is on our side. We have a fighting chance, at least, to restore democracy.”
To compound potential obstacles to I-166 and other similar propositions, Pearson said, “We will spend tens of thousands of dollars defending this from shady groups who won’t expose whose financing them.”
Pope, who’s also taught constitutional law for last five years, said founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay and George Washington all railed against too much financial influence in campaigns.
With the unlimited amounts of money being poured into elections by corporations with deep pocketbooks, Pope said, speech has become quantified. “Speech is considered one of the quintessential elements of a free democracy,” he said. “If speech is money, then those with more money get more speech. This is establishing an unequal access, and you automatically make speech an unequal right.”
To illustrate the influence, a frustrated Rick Santorum said about Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s money influence in early April, “The only way he’s been successful is winning the primaries is by just bludgeoning his opponents by an overwhelming money advantage — something he’s not going to have in the general election.”
At the time of Santorum’s remark, Romney’s campaign and so-called super PAC outspent all three of the other remaining Republican candidates combined in television ads, $53 million to $27 million, according to the SMG Delta tracking firm. Santorum, who was narrowly defeated in some state races, spent $9 million and won six states.
Peterson dissented from the three panelists in support of I-166. He said it didn’t have neutral language, considering that the Citizens United and the Western Tradition Supreme Court decisions didn’t actually have the words “corporation” in them. The word “corporation” is prevalent throughout the I-166 proposition, however.
Aside from just corporations, Peterson said, entities like conservation and environmental groups are also allowed to donate freely to political causes, so what Citizens United actually did was “level the playing field.”
He said, “It’s a purposeless act to pass I-166,” noting it’ll merely be a symbolic vote since it’s already been overridden by the Supreme Court. Quoting Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, Peterson said I-166 is like “doing what a young man learns early in Montana not to do on a windy way.”
Also calling the initiative a waste of resources, Peterson said the proposed law will do exactly nothing. “What will the Supreme Court do again? Throw it out.”
C.B. Pearson said that Montana is a small business state. As a result, “I don’t know of any Montana corporation that is significantly involved in this election using corporate dollars. But I know of a lot of out-of-state money coming in through surrogates and all sorts of organizations, and it’s impacting all elections up and down the table,” he said.
Noting Colorado also has a similar proposition this year in regards to banning corporate spending in elections, Pearson said, “Now, we need a rebellion and prairie fire to clean up our political system, and I think it starts with I-166.”
Responding to Peterson’s comments, Pearson said most of the money being used to “level the playing field” has been spent on negative ads. “In Montana, we’re used to eyeball-to-eyeball contact. You know your neighbor and expect to see your U.S. senator,” he said. “Now, we have millions of dollars coming in from out-of-state basically telling us about who our candidates supposedly are, and that’s not the Montana way.”
While agreeing that Peterson had a point in noting that I-166 would be nonbinding, “The beauty of our democracy is that we can vote and send a message,” Ellis said. “It is the one way we can as states get together and overrule something that is unjust, unfair and a threat to our democracy in a very peaceful way.”