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Is money in politics a problem?

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What gives, California? Only 53 percent of the states voters opted to affirm an advisory measure to overturn Citizens United. (Courtesy photo)

Is money in politics a problem?

Most people agree that it is.

Yet just a slight majority — 53 percent — recently voted to affirm California’s Proposition 59, an advisory measure that asked:

“Shall California’s elected officials use all of their constitutional authority, including, but not limited to, proposing and ratifying one or more amendments to the United States Constitution, to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) 558 U.S. 310, and other applicable judicial precedents, to allow the full regulation or limitation of campaign contributions and spending, to ensure that all citizens, regardless of wealth, may express their views to one another, and to make clear that corporations should not have the same constitutional rights as human beings?”

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in decades. In a 2010 5-4 decision, the majority ruled that corporations have the same rights to free speech (in the form of spending money to influence election outcomes) as individuals.

And, as one would expect as a result, more money was spent on federal races in 2016 than in 2012. A Nov. 2 report by the Center for Responsive Politics projects an additional $308 million in spending over 2012, with outside groups increasing their spending almost 73 percent.

Before you relegate the idea of an advisory measure to limit corporate influence in elections to the Bernie Bro heap of lofty, lefty idealism, consider the following:

A November 2015 report by the Pew Research Center titled, “Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government” (my short and simple summary: really badly), showed that, nationally, there is bipartisan agreement toward limiting the amount of money both people and organizations can use to influence election outcomes: Democrats at 84 percent, and Republicans at 72 percent.

Sixteen states are now on record calling for an amendment, including West Virginia and Montana — not exactly liberal bastions. While West Virginia’s was passed by the state legislature, Montana’s was passed by voters, with 75 percent affirming. Colorado voters passed theirs with 74 percent.

So what gives, California? Are we leading the nation when we can only muster 53 percent?

As someone who has worked in politics for 20 years, my first instinct is to look at how much money was spent to oppose Prop. 59, and who lined up against it. But the measure faced no funded opposition. The official opponents in the ballot guide were two Republican state legislators: State Sen. Jeff Stone and Republican Assemblymember K.H. Achadjian.

Some newspapers, including the L.A. Times, and prominent legal scholars like Erwin Chemerinsky, argued against Prop. 59. Most of the state legislators who voted against putting Prop. 59 on the ballot — Republicans — were smart enough not to publicly endorse against campaign finance reform. So they didn’t officially lend their names to the opposition.

Opponents argued that advisory measures were ineffective; that the measure should have included the language of such a proposed amendment to overturn the decision; that it would limit the speech of small businesses (as if your local donut shop is somehow the problem); and that it would somehow limit the speech of organizations beyond just corporations — like newspapers and religious institutions.

Erwin Chemerinsky pointed out in his Oct. 26 Orange County Register editorial against Prop. 59 that California’s state legislators did not have the authority to overrule the Supreme Court. (Thank you, professor, for disabusing us of the notion that our state legislators are the bosses of the Supreme Court, because we were unclear about who among our elected officials does what.) And the alternatives offered, like more disclosure, are necessary for transparency but do nothing to get at the root of the problem: the corrupting influence of money in our elections, and the way that disproportionate influence undermines a system of government whose legitimacy rests so strongly on the principles of fairness and equality.

Did Gavin Newsom’s 2004 decision to allow same-sex couples to marry in San Francisco change federal law, that day? It didn’t. Things got messy. Not everyone agreed that the timing was right, or that it created a clear path to legal recognition of same sex marriage. But the influence of his actions that day, in the ultimate overturning of DOMA and legalizing same-sex marriage is undeniable.

Sometimes, there isn’t a straight line between taking a stand, and changing the laws in the name of fairness. You don’t have to know exactly what the remedy should be, even when you know something is wrong. But you take a stand, because you have to start somewhere, and your voice might give someone else an idea, or someone else the courage to speak up. That’s how movements are built. When almost everyone agrees in the first place, it shouldn’t have to be this hard.

Maureen Erwin is a Bay Area political consultant. Most recently she led Sonoma County’s Measure M, which will create the largest GMO-free growing zone in the U.S.

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