Proposed ballot measure seeks to overturn Supreme Court decision

Citizens United ruling is focus of state initiative
The Colorado Statesman

Sponsors of a proposed ballot question asking the Colorado congressional delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting campaign contributions and spending submitted 176,774 signatures to the secretary of state’s office on Monday in an effort to overturn the controversial Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

It takes 86,105 valid signatures for the initiative to qualify for the November ballot. The secretary of state’s office has until Sept. 5 to verify signatures. The overwhelming number turned in all but guarantees it will make the ballot.

Proponents acknowledge that it is an uphill battle to amend the U.S. Constitution, which has not been done since 1992. Since 1789, it has been amended only 27 times. It takes two-thirds of the country’s state legislatures to amend the Constitution. The initiative that Colorado voters could see this November also asks the Colorado Legislature to ratify the amendment, if Congress were to propose one.

Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, helps carry in boxes of signed petitions to the secretary of state’s office on Monday. Other organizations supporting the initiative include the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, or CoPIRG, and Colorado Fair Share.

Colorado Common Cause, an advocacy organization for “open, honest and accountable government,” spearheaded the initiative. Other organizations supporting the initiative include the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, or CoPIRG, and Colorado Fair Share, an organization that states that its mission is to work for a “fair economy.”

The initiative takes aim at the landmark 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in which the Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment prohibited the government from limiting independent political contributions by corporations and unions.

Citizens United was a bad decision and a bad decision that opened the flood gate for corporate money to come in,” said Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “Citizens United, in many ways, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We’re already seeing that with the money being spent this election cycle.”

She does not believe that her initiative is symbolic, despite the immense challenge it would take to amend the U.S. Constitution in order to reverse a decision by the nation’s highest court. Instead, Nuñez believes the initiative is a first step in overturning the controversial ruling.

“It’s definitely a long-term campaign, and this is the first step,” she said. “Passing this measure on Election Day is part of the voters expressing their will.”

The 2010 ruling allowed both corporations and unions to spend big money in politics, but Nuñez does not believe that there is a balance. She says it’s not about unions versus corporations, but about getting big money from all entities out of politics.

“In terms of the question, ‘Aren’t all sides being treated equally?’ that’s not quite right,” she said. “If you look at the money that’s coming in, the influence of those who are able to write $100,000-plus checks is really drowning out the voices of smaller donors.”

Sponsors have established two issue committees to raise money and contributions for the drive, including Coloradans Get Big Money Out of Politics which has raised $94,553, with $37,544 cash on hand. The committee raised another $19,112 in non-monetary contributions. Fair Share Committee to Get Big Money Out of Politics has contributed another $365,690 in non-monetary contributions. Colorado Fair Share assisted by opening offices for the initiative in eight communities across Colorado.

Reaction from congressional delegation

The reaction from Colorado’s congressional delegation has been mixed, representing a partisan divide in ideology over whether the nation’s campaign finance laws are broken. Republicans tend to favor the ruling, allowing corporations a voice in politics, while Democrats tend to favor limiting spending.

Nuñez believes the partisan divide is not representative of the will of the people.

“The partisan divide is one we see in Congress, which is not reflected amongst their constituents,” said Nuñez.
Given the massive response to the drive — one of the most successful petition campaigns in Colorado history — Nuñez believes voters are sending a clear message that there is a disconnect between the opinions of Congress and the opinions of the people.

“It’s not a partisan issue as much as it’s an issue of the wealthiest donors versus the rest of the donors,” she said. “It’s just creating a disconnect between the people.”

Sponsors have the support of at least three Democratic members of the nine-member Colorado congressional delegation, including U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder.

Citizens United marked a sea change in American politics, vastly expanding the ability of corporations and millionaires to spend secret money to influence election results,” Udall said in a statement to The Colorado Statesman. “I support efforts to overturn Citizens United. Our democracy works at its best when we require disclosure of campaign contributions and when candidates make their pitch to the regular voters — not to high rollers.”

Bennet has actually introduced a constitutional amendment in Congress with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., aimed at reversing Citizens United. The amendment would authorize Congress to regulate and limit the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns and allow states to regulate such spending at the state level, according to spokesman Philip Clelland. It would also allow Congress to provide greater transparency and regulate independent expenditures, such as those from political action committees made in support of or opposition to candidates, according to Clelland.

“Sen. Bennet is deeply troubled by the record-breaking amount of spending in our political system,” Clelland said.

A spokesman for Polis said the congressman would also “welcome” a constitutional amendment to “prevent the manipulation of elections by big money interests and to level the playing field so long as it also protects free speech.” Polis’ spokesman, Chris Fitzgerald, said the congressman is also exploring other avenues.

“Given the difficulty of amending the constitution, Congressman Polis is also working in Congress to pass campaign finance legislation that could stand given the Citizens United ruling, such as the DISCLOSE Act, which ensures that the names of donors to Super PACs are made public, and the Grassroots Democracy Act, which would provide matching funds to candidates that only accept contributions from small donors and who reject cash from political action committees,” said Fitzgerald.

The chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, said that while the congresswoman supports campaign finance reform, she does not support a constitutional amendment to achieve that goal.

“She has supported legislation to reverse the Citizens United decision and would certainly advocate for a number of proposals that are beginning to circulate about disclosure, perhaps to require private donors to adhere to the same disclosure standards,” said DeGette’s chief of staff, Lisa Cohen. “But she has concerns about the portion of the initiative that calls for a constitutional amendment.”

On the Republican side of the aisle, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs believes that the Citizens United decision must stand.

“Congressman Lamborn believes that as long as Congress and the president can damage or even destroy corporations, that corporations should have the right to speak out,” said Catherine Mortensen, Lamborn’s spokeswoman. “Citizens United was decided correctly and does not need to be changed.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said the lawmaker would not comment on the Colorado ballot initiative.

“I won’t be able to provide you with a comment. As a federal legislator, Cory will not be taking positions on state initiatives,” Gardner’s spokeswoman, Rachel Boxer George, said in an e-mail to The Statesman.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, also would not comment because the initiative is taking place at the state level.

“The congressman doesn’t take positions on any state and local ballot initiatives,” said Coffman’s campaign spokesman, Owen Loftus.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, did not provide a response by deadline.

And a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, did not return multiple requests for comment.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com