DENVER—Amendment 65 would take steps to restrict campaign cash, but its critics say its aim is to restrict something far more valuable: the right to free speech. The proposed amendment, one of three measures on the Nov. 6 ballot, asks voters to instruct the Colorado congressional delegation to “propose and support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that allows Congress and the states to limit campaign contributions and spending,” according to the 2012 State Ballot Information Booklet.
Asking Coloradans to support restrictions on campaign spending is like asking them to vote in favor of snow at ski resorts. Colorado voters approved contribution limits in 1996 and 2002, and there’s no reason to think they won’t endorse them again, said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.
“People are always in favor of limits, and we’ve passed statewide limits here in Colorado,” said Ciruli. “I do think it’ll pass, and then I think it’ll be rapidly forgotten.”
Why? Because Amendment 65 is worded as a “voter instruction,” also known in elections circles as a “letter to Santa Claus.” The initiative doesn’t actually required lawmakers to do anything, although its supporters have made it clear that their ultimate goal is for Congress to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission.
The Citizens United decision outraged groups like Occupy Wall Street by ruling that corporations, as associations of individuals, had the same free-speech rights as people, and thus could participate in and contribute to political campaigns.
Opponents of Citizens United have placed similar measures this year on the Montana ballot and on legislative district ballots in Massachusetts.
“It’s to give voters an opportunity to send an instruction to their representatives and frankly a message politicians will understand since it’s being voted on,” said Dale Eisman, Common Cause’s senior writer/researcher. “We see this as a long-term project, and we’re trying to get as many of these passed as possible.”
The Yes on 65 campaign is being led by leaders of Colorado Common Cause, Clean State Now, People for the American Way and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG). So far Amendment 65 has no organized opposition, although several prominent Colorado conservatives have spoke out against it, including the Independence Institute’s David Kopel, Free Colorado’s Ari Armstrong, and KOA-AM talk-show host Mike Rosen.
“To give the government the power to say, ‘You can’t spend your money on advocating for or against somebody’ is to take away that person’s equal right to use whichever resources he’s earned in the way he chooses,” said Kopel in a debate with Clean Slate Now founder Ken Gordon on KGNU radio.
Conservatives have also noted that there tends to be far more outrage over corporate spending than labor union spending, which was also upheld in the Citizens United decision. While groups like Move to Amend rail against “corporate personhood,” little if anything is said about “union personhood.” Labor unions overwhelmingly support Democratic Party candidates, while corporations tend to back Republicans.
Danny Katz, state director of CoPiRG, insisted Amendment 65 is intended to curb the contributions of both corporations and unions, which he said have warped the political process by allowing those with the fattest wallets to wield the most influence.
“We’re talking about the big spending that’s been allowed in the last few elections,” said Katz. “It’s not anti-union, anti-corporation or anti-individual, it’s in favor of how much money can be contributed to these committees.”
As for the measure’s status as a wish list with no binding authority, “it’s just a directive, but it’s an important directive,” Katz said. “And we’ve got to start somewhere, so I’m proud to see this in Colorado.”
One group that’s not getting involved in the campaign is Citizens United, the Virginia-based conservative advocacy group that touched off the initial lawsuit after the FEC banned its 2008 documentary Hillary: The Movie.
“We’re not following it real closely because it’s pretty much an exercise in futility by the people promoting it,” said Citizens United general counsel Mike Boos.
He said that post-decision predictions of a corporate takeover of elections have failed to materialize, largely because corporations tend to hedge their bets and contribute to both Democrats and Republicans.
“Corporations are risk-averse. They don’t want to alienate any segment of their consumer base,” said Boos. “What you have instead are wealthy individuals giving their personal money to non-profit corporations, which are the ones doing the spending.”
Another organization staying on the sidelines is Colorado Move to Amend, the state branch of a national group fighting Citizens United. While the group supports the goals of Amendment 65, its leaders say that the measure doesn’t go far enough.
“Amendment 65 is an effort to deal with the problem of ‘money as speech.’ But it says nothing about the equally destructive problem of ‘corporate personhood,’” said Stephen Justino, co-chair of Colorado Move to Amend, in a statement.
Constitutional amendments must be proposed by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate, and then ratified by three-fourths of the states, or 38 of 50 states, before taking effect.