Voters in Monona will have more than elections on their April 4 ballot.
A petition for direct legislation by the Monona United to Amend group was successful, so residents will get the chance to voice their support for a constitutional amendment declaring that only human beings have constitutional rights and that money is not equal to speech and, therefore, political contributions can be limited.
A constitutional amendment would in essence overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. The court ruled that the government could not restrict political spending by corporations because of a right to free speech.
More than 1,200 city residents signed a petition in favor of having the resolution placed on the ballot.
“We believe that the voters of Monona should have the opportunity to directly and democratically express their interest on this matter,” wrote Waltraud “Wally” Brinkmann, of Monona United to Amend, in a letter to the Monona City Council.
The council, voting Jan. 3, eliminated any ambiguity about the matter, when alders voted on the specific wording that will appear on the April 4 ballot. Among the items discussed were a clarificaiton of exactly what a constitutional amendment would achieve and whether the council should pass a similar resolution that night.
Alder Jim Busse noted that an amendment like this would not affect only corporations; it would also impact unions and nonprofit organizations, including the NAACP, American Red Cross, Planned Parenthood, NRA and the AFL-CIO.
“I understand where big money comes in, but there’s also the uber-rich. What happens to them?” Busse asked. “Are PACs excluded from contributing?”
George Penn, of the Wisconsin United to Amend organization, attempted to clarify the matter.
“It would be clarifying in the Constitution that all those entities do not have constitutionally given rights the way people do. It clarifies that they are not persons and therefore they don’t have the rights of a human being as identified in the Constitution,” Penn said.
“This amendment does say who can contribute or not. All it says is they don’t have rights that make it impossible for us to limit them. At this point, because they are considered persons, equal to human beings under the Constitution, we cannot limit anything we could not limit for each person like the right to speak or the right to do anything, and therefore, that gives them undue power.”
All corporations or nonprofit groups could still contribute money if given that privilege by the government, but the government could place limits on those privileges, Penn added.
“So, it’s not so much the objections to corporations contributing, it’s that they are considered a person?” asked Busse.
“It’s attempting to restore the status quo, which existed before the Citizens United ruling,” Alder Chad Speight added. “It was a fairly radical ruling to suggest that a corporation cannot be regulated and that it has the rights of a human being.”
Penn said corporations operated just fine for two centuries before the Citizens United decision.
“Taking away the myth that they’re not persons does not take away any privileges the government can give to them,” Penn said. “We don’t corporations to go under. You don’t want corporations to go under. Now we’re going to start treating them like property, which is what they are to us, and we’re going to give them privileges.”
It’s much more than just funding for elections, he said.
The Monona United to Amend group wanted the council to adopt a similar resolution after the April election, but some alders favored passing the resolution first. Speight and Alder Doug Wood were among those wanting the early vote.
“It’s good for us to state our case,” Speight said.
Wood asked what would be the purpose of voting after the election.
Alder Brian Holmquist said he favored the constitutional amendment but not an immediate vote by the council.
“I’m concerned if we vote on this tonight, there may be some of us that will vote against that, which can send the wrong message,” he said.
Alder Mary O’Connor and Busse agreed, with Busse making a motion to table the resolution. That motion failed for lack of a second.
Alder Andrew Kitslaar made the motion to adopt the wording that will appear on the ballot, and the motion was approved on a voice vote.