After last month’s town hall votes, it’s pretty obvious: New Hampshire wants corporate spending out of politics.
Most communities that asked residents to vote on a warrant article that supports getting corporate spending out of politics approved it. Advocates of the finance reform article say they want a rich democracy where everyone — not just the wealthy — can influence the political process, but its critics worry the issues are misunderstood and that the warrant article proposes “selectively squelching people who can speak,” said Calvin Massey, professor of law at the University of New Hampshire.
Getting on the ballot
The appearance of last month’s warrant articles was prompted by Move to Amend, a national grassroots coalition of finance reform advocates that opposes the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. That ruling found that the government can’t restrict any spending on political speech by corporations, labor unions or any organization, as long as they are not contributing directly to politicians or political campaigns (another precedent restricts that).
Back in October, Move to Amend began recruiting town leaders to circulate a petition and get a warrant article that asks for a constitutional amendment to regulate political spending by corporations onto town ballots. So far, of the state’s 234 towns and cities, 61 have had the article on the ballot, and 49 of those voted in favor of it.
Critics of the warrant article wonder if people would still have voted in its favor if they were aware that the Citizens United’s ruling protected unions, nonprofits and all other organizations from political spending limits.
“[Some people] think [Citizens United] only freed corporations to spend their treasury funds on political advertising,” said Massey. “It also freed nonprofits, religious groups and unions, which are the single biggest spenders on political campaigns.”
The petition that Move to Amend crafted for New Hampshire towns asks for a constitutional amendment that “clarifies that constitutional rights were established for people, not corporations.” The problem, critics of the warrant article say, is that the other organizations Citizens United protects are not mentioned in the article even though overturning the ruling would also result in limiting them. This includes groups like Room to Grow and the University of New Hampshire, and Tree Care Industries Association, which have made significant election contributions in New Hampshire, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But restricting all these groups from big spending is what Move to Amend is looking for, said Olivia Zink, New Hampshire’s Move to Amend coordinator. Its perspective is that no “artificial entities (non-human beings) should be allowed to put money into the political process regardless of where it’s coming from. When the word “corporation” appears on Move to Amend’s petition, it signifies all non-person groups, not just the large companies with massive profits that often come to mind when people think of campaign financing.
“When you use that word [corporations], labor unions and nonprofit entities are corporations,” Zink said.
Massey suggested an amendment like the one those 49 towns voted for could be dangerous, because it means the federal government would be granted power to decide who can voice an opinion and who cannot.
“In terms of meetings, suppose there was a regulation that said town meetings may not deliver a political opinion,” he said. “I suspect everyone in favor of overturning Citizens United would be appalled.”
The votes’ influence
When an issue gains this much popularity at the town level, it gets attention at the state level, said Michael Wright, Deerfield town administrator.
“We tend to see [that following such warrant article support] there is a bill generated, and discussion with the state,” he said.
Last week, the state Senate passed Senate Bill 307, which established a committee to review the Citizens United ruling and make recommendations to state legislators as to which approaches to a constitutional amendment, if any, the delegation should support.
The bill has the potential to clarify how much money is being spent on elections in New Hampshire, where it’s coming from, and what its impact on policy is. Still, its wording falls short of what advocate groups wanted to see — language calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling.
It’s a low-cost way to address citizens’ interest, said Chris Galderie, assistant professor in the department of politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester. But influencing federal policy is extremely difficult.
“It’s tough to see that any time soon,” he said. “Constitutional amendments are very difficult to pass. ... It would have to become the default setting, and right now you have a lot of Republicans who think [the Citizens United ruling] is a great benefit for them. If a bunch of liberal minded billionaires started spending on Democrats, you could see them coming around to it too.”
As seen in the April 3, 2014 issue of The Hippo.