The California State Supreme Court has recently voted to reinstate an advisory measure regarding campaign finance reform onto the November ballot. This advisory measure creates no new laws or taxes; it simply asks the voters their opinion on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the infamous “Citizens United” case from 2010.
But what makes a court ruling from five years ago so important?
It’s important because the Supreme Court’s ruling furthered the idea that money equals speech. Let that idea sink in for a second. If political spending is a form of free speech, then people with more money are given the right to speak louder than everyone else.
It used to be that candidates for political office only had the money to pay for political ads if enough people donated to them directly (starting in the 1960s, presidential elections also started getting matching funds from the federal government). This is not so anymore. For the past few years, corporations, unions and individuals with large sums of money have had the option to funnel millions of dollars into organizations known as “Super Political Action Committees” (Super PACs). These super PACs are allowed to independently campaign for political candidates as long as they are not “directly working” with them. But proving that a super PAC is coordinating with a particular candidate is tough and punishments for those who do coordinate are rare.
How can a democracy be “by and for the people” when the rich have such a large amount of influence over our political discourse?
There’s no question in my mind that the issue of campaign finance reform is one of the most important this upcoming November, but there will be no direct votes on how to fix the system. The most direct way to reverse the Citizens United ruling involves three-fourths of the states ratifying a constitutional amendment. Not an easy task to be sure, but one that is worthy of attention. However, the advisory measure that will be on the 2016 ballot does nothing to bring about that constitutional amendment. The only thing the measure does is inform the legislature of how the voters feel about the Citizens United decision. (Do you feel that money should equal speech?).
Does that mean that the advisory measure is completely superfluous? Certainly not. The issue of campaign finance reform is often avoided by mainstream media in favor of more sensational topics, such as the threat of terrorism or Donald Trump’s latest tweets. This is odd, considering a recent poll found that 78 percent of Americans want the Citizens United ruling to be reversed. If voters in November respond “yes” to the advisory measure in overwhelming numbers, we may start to see mainstream media take notice of this issue.
Okay, since the advisory measure has symbolic importance for an issue that needs more attention, it’s a slam dunk right? Well, not entirely. Putting campaign finance reform on the ballot is not only a way of getting voter input, but it’s also meant to increase voter turnout among Democrats. The state legislature knows that most Democrats are passionate about this issue and are more likely to go to the polls and vote if they feel there is something at stake. State legislatures across the country know this tactic very well. Republican legislatures in red states used the same tactics by putting gay marriage bans on their ballots to increase Republican turnout.
The cynical voter might say that the advisory measure’s use in manipulating voter turnout is reason enough to avoid this election. That view is narrow-minded and naive. Political parties always use every tool at their disposal to win elections and using an advisory measure to squeeze out a few more votes is a far cry from the kind of “corrupt dirty politics” that comes to mind when the word “politician” is spoken. You know what really is corrupt? Letting rich individuals spend millions of dollars to influence elections in states they don’t even live in, something that’s perfectly fine under the Citizens United ruling.
Campaign finance reform is an important issue, perhaps the most important domestic issue of the 21st century. Does this advisory measure do much to address that issue? No, but voters should still be given the chance to speak out. When the results of this advisory measure are tallied, the real question will be: Who speaks louder, the voters or the dollars?