Four years after the controversial Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling, citizens-everyone from state legislators to high school students-are uniting to have it overturned.
A protest group of the latter, led by Jewish High School of Connecticut student Batsheva Labowe-Stoll came out to the corner of Church and Chapel Street on May 25 to make a statement against what they perceive as a rampant and growing influence of money in politics-the essence of a ruling that allows corporations the same campaign contribution rights as individuals, hence the infamous term “corporate personhood”.
“It really affects all different issues,” Labowe-Stoll said at the protest. “Corporations control so much of the government. It’s controlled in a way people aren’t aware of. If it was up to them, there’d be no clean air and water act, because they exist just to profit.”
The group’s sentiment is that more money has been equated to more political capital, and that’s a paradigm that members are looking to shift.
“It gives an unequal opportunity to people that can’t afford to give billions of dollars,” Labowe-Stoll said. “Rich people can spend as much as they want.”
Especially after the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Court declared that previously mandated limits on aggregate campaign contributions-the amount of money an individual donates across all candidates and committees-violates the First Amendment. Donors still have to abide by base restrictions to the amount of money they can give to one given candidate.
“If we’re to preserve even the vestiges of free, open, liberal democracy, we must destroy the apparatus that allows the rich to shape and distort our political narrative,” said Alex Dorf, who attended the protest.
In 2012, Super PACs took in more than $824 million. Sixty-eight percent of that-or $560,791,896-came from the top 1 percent of the donors, according to OpenSecrets.org. The top 100 contributors accounted for 57 percent-$471,545,650-of the total amount.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to call it a plutocracy,” said Philip Baruth, a state senator in Vermont, where the legislature just passed a resolution calling for a Constitutional convention to consider an amendment negating Citizens United. “It’s a group of people who are fabulously wealthy, and have the money to set up multi-tiered attacks on the rights of average people.”
In New Haven, the demonstration was relatively small-only about 20 people-and what direction it will take, if any, is unclear right now.
“This is just one action,” Labowe-Stoll said. “I guess we’ll see where it goes. If people come out of the woodwork for this, I guess it’ll continue.”
If it is not a movement yet in Connecticut, it is in other parts of the country, and Vermont is leading the way. The protestors at last month’s demonstration are paying attention, and they want Connecticut to get on board.
“We’re going to go through state legislatures,” said Ben Gerber, another student protestor from Jewish High School. “That’s what they did in Vermont.”
Thirty-four states will have to pass similar resolutions in order to force Congress to hold a convention, and then at least 38 will need to vote to ratify the amendment that will be in discussion, so the entire endeavor is a reach, Baruth said during a phone interview.
“I don’t think what we passed will have a great impact,” Baruth said. “It was more symbolic. People treated it as a statement on Citizens United instead of a nuts and bolts thing that’ll happen in the next ten years.”
Vermont Senator Virginia Lyons, the resolution’s lead proponent, disagrees. In Vermont the campaign against Citizens United got its push not from just the state legislature but locally-Lyons herself was active in pushing towns to get behind the effort-and the people are expecting something tangible.
“It’s been a grassroots effort,” Lyons said during a phone interview. “It’s not symbolic-it’s very real. We need to remedy this.”
There’s more than one way to do that. The movement can go state by state until the required 34 is reached, or Congress can decide to call the convention itself. The latter was attempted in 2012 to no avail, so the campaign has shifted to a bottom up approach.
“I thought there’s no way we’re going to have anything happen, and yet within one month we got 64 towns to propose a resolution asking us to pass a resolution asking us to pass a resolution asking Congress to propose an amendment,” Lyons said of the first campaign.
That’s because the issue is one that has transcended party lines, said Ryan Clayton of the Washington D.C.-based Wolf PAC, a major proponent of Vermont’s resolution and an organization that is active in promoting the cause nationally.
While he admitted that they still have a long way to go, that will certainly help, Clayton said.
“Only issues that are the most cross-partisan will make it through,” he said. “Everybody wants to solve this problem.”
Ninety four percent of those surveyed in polling conducted by Tulchin Research said that they would support tougher federal campaign finance laws. When broken down by party affiliation, 95 percent of democrats and 91 percent of republicans got behind the idea. The data was released by the group Texans United to Amend.
“That’s almost the whole country,” Clayton said. “Every generation has amended the Constitution-except ours, and we have the internet. If the suffragists can do it, if the abolitionists can do it, I think we can. We’re going to make elections free and fair for everyone-not just lobbyists, billionaires, and their friends.”