SEATTLE — Proponents of a statewide ballot initiative want to get big money out of politics by backing a federal constitutional amendment that says free speech in the form of political contributions belongs to people, not corporations.
Opponents say the government shouldn’t limit the First Amendment.
Instead of trying to overturn a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that led to the creation of Super PACS and “dark money” in politics, Initiative 735 backers seek a constitutional amendment they hope will level the political playing field.
The effort is part of a national movement in favor of a constitutional amendment to eliminate big money from politics.
Under current laws, “the more money you have, the more speech you have,” said Matthew Streib, spokesman for the Washington Coalition to Amend the Constitution. “You shouldn’t have more access to candidates because you’re rich.”
The group isn’t trying to fix decisions like the 2010 Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United, which said that corporations have a free-speech right to spend unlimited amounts advocating for or against a candidate. They instead want the change written into the nation’s governing document.
“We want fair and equal elections enshrined in the Constitution so that decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon won’t happen in the first place,” Streib said. “We want an amendment that upholds the core democratic ideal that all people are equal.”
The initiative requires that the Washington state congressional delegation propose a constitutional amendment saying constitutional rights “belong only to individuals, not corporations, and constitutionally protected free speech excludes the spending of money.”
Supporters of Initiative 735 collected 330,000 signatures from registered voters to get it on the ballot. The measure’s campaign has raised $127,571 and spent that same amount, according to disclosure reports.
A long list of county and city officials across the state, dozens of state lawmakers, Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington’s Democratic Congressional delegation have endorsed the measure.
Critics say silencing any speech is undemocratic.
Rebecca Faust, co-author of the statement against the initiative that appears in the state Voter’s Guide, said government should not limit a citizen’s expression, even if it’s in the form of corporate spending on campaign ads.
“Silencing one voice to amplify another doesn’t feel right,” she said. “If we let the government decide who has free speech, we’ll have big government instead of a big corporation controlling speech.”
Kelly Haughton, who helped write the opposition statement, said he is “a big supporter of civil rights and civil liberties.”
“And I view this as an attack on our civil liberties,” he said. “It will have unintended negative consequences on freedom of speech.”
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in campaign finance, said she hates the Citizens United ruling, and she has written numerous editorials expressing that opinion.
“A decision made in the name of protecting speech rights actually did the opposite,” Levinson wrote in a 2012 Op-Ed published in the Politico newspaper as the country witnessed a huge increase in Super PAC spending during that election cycle. “Now it’s the people with the most money who can speak longest and loudest.”
But passing a constitutional amendment to address the ruling isn’t a practical approach, Levinson said.
“It’s bringing an ax when you need a scalpel,” she said. “You threaten to cut off more than you want.”
Instead, she said she supports efforts to change the courts’ rulings, going back to 1976, that resulted in unlimited funds being dropped into federal elections.
The latest Elway Poll showed Initiative 735 with a significant party split. About 53 percent of Democrats who responded to the poll supported the plan, while only 27 percent of Republicans said it was a good idea. About 41 percent were undecided at the time of polling in August.
The initiative would have no significant fiscal impact if passed. It requires the Secretary of State to deliver copies of the initiative to elected officials at a cost of about $325.
California also has an “undo Citizens United” measure on its ballot this year, said Wendy Underhill, an elections director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Streib said 17 states have passed resolutions in favor of a new constitutional amendment.