Recently, the California Legislature approved a nonbinding question that would allow California voters to show their thoughts – mainly, their disdain – for the 2010 US Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case that allowed corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions.
But on Tuesday, opponents filed a lawsuit seeking to remove the question from the November ballot. They say the ballot should be reserved for laws, not the measurement of non-binding feelings. Meanwhile, advocates say putting the question on the ballot provides California voters with the very voice often quieted and underfunded compared to the corporations that the court decision empowered.
The advisory measure, which would appear as Proposition 49, is threatened by a lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an advocacy group for taxpayers' rights. Gov. Jerry Brown isn't a massive cheerleader for the advisory measure, either. He opted not to sign it, pointing out that the Legislature had already approved a resolution asking Congress to convene a constitutional convention to overturn the decision.
He added that the state should not “make it a habit to clutter our ballots with non-binding measures as citizens rightfully assume that their votes are meant to have legal effect.” The HJTA claim the measure is an attempt to increase voter participation in a a mostly mundane statewide election.
“It is very disappointing that the majority in the Legislature views the elections process as their personal plaything,” HJTA President Jon Coupal wrote in a biting statement.
Similarly, the Sacramento Bee wrote that the proposed ballot measure is “designed to lure more Democrats to the polls when legislators are trying to keep their seats.”
But the initiative's supporters argue that it's important to bring voters to the polls because citizens could use more of a voice. This argument is not so different than those who think political protests matter because they help voice public opposition and attract political attention. This measure just has a more legislative flavor than the typical street protest, and involves more taxpayers’ cash. But according to Michael Sutter, volunteer organizer for The Money Out Voters In Coalition, it would only cost voters two pennies at most.
“This is one of those issues where Californians know that this is wrong, want to do something about it, and feel that this is a very good way to have the national conversational in an unavoidable way,” Sutter said. “We can make big noise here in California.”
Since the Citizens United decision, cities around California have found comfort in voicing their disapproval through non-binding resolutions at the local level. In 2010, Richmond voted unanimously to support a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish corporate personhood, and two years later, San Franciscans followed suite, passing Proposition G with 81 percent of the vote.
Yet the Citizens United decision still stands, and the usefulness of such non-binding resolutions remains to be seen.
John Bonifaz, co-founder and president of Free Speech for the People, launched a national campaign opposing Citizens United right after the decision was made. Since then, 11 states have passed some kind of resolution announcing their support for overturning Citizens United.
“It was not a waste to have Montana voters vote on this kind of measure in 2012, nor to have Colorado voters vote on this measure in 2012,” Bonifaz told the Guardian. “This is a critically important measure for the future of our democracy. Are we going to become a nation where only the big money interests and corporations are able to be heard, or are we in fact going to reclaim a basic fundamental promise of government by and for the people?”
Non-binding measures rarely make an appearance on the California ballot. According to Sutter, the last time to come close was in 2007 when the State Senate passed a non-binding ballot measure asking voters if they supported withdrawal of troops in Iraq. “We only use these kinds of measures when national policy is directly at odds with the will of the California people,” Sutter said.
The Iraq ballot measure was promptly vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Critics condemned its usefulness; after all, how could California opposition bring the troops home? And now, how can opposition in California to outrageous campaign contribution help level the political playing field?
The truth is that maybe it won't.
“By allowing SB 1272 to become law without my signature, it is my intention to signal that I am not inclined to repeat this practice of seeking advisory opinions from the voters,” Brown stated.
But Sutter thinks his attitude is the problem, and that maybe political figures should consider seeking voter feedback more often. “Jerry Brown has a problem with the concept of the people advising their representatives, and that's an attitude I have a problem with,” she said.
Prop. 49 might not change the Citizens United Decision, but -- if it survives the lawsuit -- it will make it apparent that a whole lot of California voters want the court decision overturned. The question is whether or not those in power care what people think.