When volunteers fanned out across Massachusetts to collect the signatures necessary to get Ballot Question 2 on the ballot, they asked passersby: Want to overturn Citizens United? Want to get rid of unlimited corporate campaign contributions?
They got enough signatures. However, what the measure would actually do is a bit less lofty. If it passes, it would create a commission that would write a report on limiting money in politics and propose language for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the 28th — that would help regulate campaign spending.
Here’s a look at the ballot question, its potential impact and the broader context. Read the ballot measure here.
1. What would the ballot measure do?
If this referendum passes, it would create a commission made up of 15 unpaid citizens. Massachusetts citizens would be able to apply for a spot on the commission.
By the end of 2019, the commission would produce a report that promotes amending the U.S. Constitution to reduce the role of money in politics. Specifically, the report would have to present findings on five topics:
- What political and election spending looks like in Massachusetts,
- Whether Massachusetts can legally regulate corporations and limit their campaign contributions,
- What language is best for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would limit the role of money in politics,
- What amendments have already been introduced in Congress to try to regulate election spending and reduce the role of corporate money in politics, and
- How lawmakers and citizens can best promote this amendment.
This ballot question is being framed as a way for Massachusetts voters to go on record as opposing the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United.
That’s the highly controversial case in which the court ruled — in a 5-4 decision — that corporations, labor unions and other associations could spend virtually unlimited money on campaigns, through groups like Political Action Committees, or PACs.
2. Who advocated for this ballot initiative?
A group called American Promise — founded by Jeff Clements of Concord — is spearheading the effort. Advocates for the measure are working nationally to mobilize people around passing a 28th Amendment to the Constitution that would, as they put it, restore American democracy to “we the people.”
They envision the 28th Amendment as removing the ability of corporations, labor unions, superPACs and other wealthy interests from pouring money into political campaigns. Instead, they say, only individual citizens would be able to contribute to elections.
Clements said that in the current system, “you and Exxon and a billionaire and the SEIU all have the same right to spend unlimited money. But how many of us have unlimited money to spend on elections?”
Clements said this system — in place because of Citizens United and other similar Supreme Court decisions — deprives Americans of equal representation and equal rights. Instead, he says, it is money from the wealthiest Americans and the wealthiest corporations that determines who runs, who wins and who governs our country.
American Promise's strategy to change this system starts in towns, cities and states. The group wants places to pass local resolutions advocating for the 28th Amendment, with the hope to put pressure on politicians at the national level to propose the amendment.
This movement was started in Massachusetts and, according to American Promise, more than 200 Massachusetts towns have passed local resolutions. In 2012, state lawmakers passed resolutions calling for action to “restore the First Amendment and fair elections to the people.”
Clements says the goal of this ballot question is to prove that the people — and not just the politicians — want this. And, he says, the hope is that it keeps people thinking about and discussing the need to get money out of politics.
3. Who opposes these changes?
There is no group formally opposed to this ballot question. However, the Secretary of State asked the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance to write an opposition statement for this year’s Voter Guide, and the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance says it gladly agreed.
Their opposition is two-fold.
First, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance believes Citizens United was a good decision. Before that ruling, the alliance's spokesperson Paul Craney said, “there was such a cobweb of different campaign finance regulation that oftentimes it didn’t make any sense, and it made it almost impossible for anyone to do anything.”
He said Citizens United cleaned out the cobwebs and made “clear and fair” rules.
“It allows individual people, it allows employers, businesses — which also include some nonprofits and unions — to all have the same equal voice. The rules are clearly explained,” he said. “They can raise unlimited amounts of money and spend unlimited money to elect someone.”
Craney said this means that everyone has an “equal voice.” Under the previous system, he says there were loopholes and confusing regulations, allowing lawmakers to pick losers and winners rather than having one rule for everyone.
Second, even if you dislike the Citizens United decision and want to see it overturned, this is not the way to do it.
Craney said that the commission that would be created by the ballot initiative would be a waste of time and resources. “As if Beacon Hill doesn’t have enough commissions,” he said.
As for proposing a constitutional amendment, Craney thinks the outcome will likely benefit incumbent politicians, rather than the people.
“Elected officials in Congress or in the statehouse do the same thing over and over again. ... They use campaign financing as a weapon to silence the opposition,” said Craney. “That’s what they do.”
4. What was Citizens United and why are we talking about it?
Citizens United has become a rallying cry for many who want to limit the amount of money in politics and the amount of time politicians spend fundraising. However, the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 was not a stand-alone decision. Instead, it was the culmination of a series of legal decisions that can be traced back to cases such as Buckley v. Valeo in 1975 and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti in 1978.
Together, these decisions did a few things. First, they established that money is speech.
The Supreme Court ruled that how you spend your money is a way to express your opinions. Thus, independent expenditures — where you don’t directly coordinate with the candidate, but you can pay for things like political ads — are protected under the First Amendment right to free speech. These expenditures aren’t just seen as free speech, they’re treated as political speech — the right to criticize the government — which is one of the most highly protected types of speech.
The Court declared that legislatures can’t limit spending, because that would be limiting someone’s ability to freely express their opinions.
Second, the Court ruled that corporations — not just individuals — have a right to free speech.
Massachusetts and our ballot questions played a pivotal role in setting the legal framework for this. In the 1978 case First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, the Supreme Court — in a 5-4 decision — struck down a Massachusetts state law that prohibited corporate donations in ballot initiatives unless the company’s interests were explicitly being challenged. While this decision did not impact federal law, it is cited in later Supreme Court cases that affect federal campaign finance regulations.
The Citizens United decision spoke to both of these factors: political speech and corporations having the same rights as people.
In the split decision, the Court ruled that, because of the freedom of speech clause in the First Amendment, the government cannot restrict the independent expenditures of for-profit corporations, nonprofit corporations, labor unions and other groups.
These groups can spend virtually unlimited money trying to influence politics and elect their favorite politicians.
Rachael Cobb, the chair of the department of government at Suffolk University, has been watching all of this closely. She says the important question about unlimited campaign contributions by corporations is: “How much has that changed everything?” And, she said, there is evidence on both sides.
Some argue that floodgates have been opened at both federal and state levels, pointing to the fact that outside spending has ballooned since the Citizens United decision. Others see it differently. Cobb explains their position: “The wealthiest candidate doesn’t always win, and the most well-financed candidate doesn’t always win.”
5. Why is the focus of this campaign on a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have a free speech right to spend unlimited money to influence elections and policies, and Supreme Court decisions are considered settled law. Unless the justices overturn their ruling, it is not changing.
If citizens want to put limits on corporate spending in politics, advocates say, their only option is to change the founding document of the United States to explicitly allow for campaign finance regulations and declare that only people, not corporations or unions, can contribute to elections. This requires passing a constitutional amendment.
However, achieving a constitutional amendment is not easy. It requires approval by two-thirds of the U.S. House and Senate, and then it must be ratified by three-quarters — or 38 — of the states.
While national and state polls suggest that people overwhelmingly support limiting money in politics, it is often not their top policy priority, said Cobb.
American Promise, the organization advocating for this ballot initiative, hopes that getting towns and states to declare their support for this amendment will create enough pressure on politicians to act and start the process of passing a 28th Amendment.
“The question is, is this where advocates want to put their efforts?" Cobb said. "Or do they want to put their efforts in creating other mechanisms in the campaign finance universe?”
Cobb said some people have spent their time pushing for ‘nutrition labels’ for campaign ads. Similar to a nutrition label on a candy bar, these labels would “say very clearly who paid for the political ad, and whether the candidate supported it or didn't support it, and other key features that would be really easy to read and really digestible for citizens.”
Seattle officials have come up with another response to big money in politics. In 2015, the city approved a program called “Democracy Vouchers.” Each registered voter gets $100 that they can distribute to candidates in city elections. The idea is that this is a way for average citizens to speak out and support candidates. And, theoretically, lesser-known and less well-connected candidates aren’t forced to curry favor with big donors.
However, those advocating for change in Massachusetts have decided to focus their efforts on securing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, even if it’s a long road.
6. What are other states doing?
The main group behind this ballot question, American Promise, has been working across the country to get cities, towns and states to line up behind the idea of passing a 28th Amendment to limit corporate campaign spending. According to its count, 19 states and more than 800 cities and towns have passed resolutions calling for an amendment. These states range from Washington to California, from Nevada to West Virginia.
American Promise says Massachusetts is already among these 19 states, with lawmakers passing resolutions in 2012. However, it says this ballot question is different because — if it passes and passes by a lot — it will show that “we the people” and not just the politicians support the idea of an amendment to prevent corporate money in politics.
Read WGBH News' one-page voter guide on Ballot Question 2: