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Big Money at the Ballot

Adam Lioz

Since Citizens United unleashed a flood of corporate money into federal election campaigns, the public has been justifiably outraged at the ability of large economic institutions to wield undue political power.  Democracy, after all, should write the rules for capitalism—not the other way around.

But, candidate elections aren't the only venue for big money to magnify the influence of wealthy individuals and institutions.

The Washington Post has a great article today on the increasing role of big corporate money in ballot initiative campaigns across the 24 states that allow some type of direct democracy. Reid Wilson writes:

The initiative process, originally aimed at giving citizens the chance to break industry’s hold on state legislatures, is increasingly becoming the domain of corporations and wealthy individuals who advance new laws for their own advantage, bypassing reluctant legislatures and spending millions of dollars along the way.

This important piece does, however, contain one misleading sentence.  Reid writes that "[b]ecause states don’t limit contributions to initiative campaigns, wealthy donors can use them as a way to influence public policy."

The sentence implies that states choose not to limit contributions to ballot initiatives. But, this is not the case.

In fact, the Supreme Court's misguided rulings around the role of money in politics have hamstrung states. In a 1981 case called Citizens Against Rent Control v. City of Berkeley, the Court ruled that contribution limits to ballot campaigns are unconstitutional. This followed up on a better-known 1978 case that prohibited states from banning corporate contributions to ballot campaigns (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti).

The Court's logic: that the only acceptable reason for limiting the use of money in politics is to fight corruption, and with an issue on the ballot there's nobody to corrupt.

This, of course, ignores the basic unfairness in allowing wealthy interests and individuals to bring their tremendous economic might to bear in our supposedly equal political sphere.  It is blind to the fact that clean governance is only one issue at stake in campaign finance--there's also voice, power, and basic notions of political equality.

And, it shows clearly why we need a whole new jurisprudence around money in politics—one that accords with core American values and basic common sense.