In November Proposition 59 will give Californians the opportunity to tell our elected officials to use their constitutional authority, which includes supporting a constitutional amendment, to overturn the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision. The 2010 decision opened the door for corporations and unions to use unlimited funds to influence elections and despite vehement opposition, it still stands today.
At first glance Prop 59 may sound like an important initiative. Citizens United was perhaps the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott. Since only a constitutional amendment can permanently overturn a Supreme Court decision, expressing support for such an amendment sounds promising, perhaps even necessary. Prop 59 is anything but.
Prop 59 is a non-binding, vague, redundant, and ultimately feeble effort to address the very real problem of big money in politics. It’s yet another symbolic gesture in the long line of petitions, resolutions, and initiatives aimed at overturning Citizens United that are all bark and no bite. Worst of all, it’s a waste of time and energy at a moment when the movement to get big money out of politics is in dire need of impactful, focused action.
For starters, even if Prop 59 passes it won’t necessarily do anything. Our elected officials are under no obligation to follow its request. Some of them may be hard pressed to understand what that request even is. Though the proposition mentions the prospect of an amendment, it does not include any concrete amendment language, so it is unclear exactly what reforms it’s designed to inspire. In addition to overturning Citizens United, Prop 59 also asks our elected officials to overturn “other applicable judicial precedents,” but does not specify which ones and to what extent.
Prop 59’s backers downplay these problems. They argue that the initiative is a valuable part of movement building, or that it’s a chance for voters to take a stand, but Prop 59 is a few years late to that dance. Los Angeles voters passed a similar initiative in 2013 and in 2014 the California state legislature voted to support an amendment overturning Citizens United. So at best, Prop 59 is asking our legislators to do something they already did two years ago. It’s no wonder the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and Santa Cruz Sentinel have opposed this ballot clutter. All of which makes you wonder, why are we spending our limited time and resources asking voters a question when we already know the answer?
The truth is that Prop 59 and similar initiatives are not solely on the ballot to get big money out of politics, they also serve another purpose--benefiting the individuals and organizations that support them. Prop 59 gives organizations an excuse to ask for your money and collect email addresses while tapping into the momentum of a popular cause. Prop 59’s authors get to elevate their status within the movement and build their resumes as “leaders.”
So what’s the harm, you might ask? Isn’t passing Prop 59 better than doing nothing? Absolutely. But it’s not better than doing something. And the tragedy is that for too long the movement to overturn Citizens United has been characterized by efforts like Prop 59 that exist in that purgatory between nothing and something. All that energy to get big money out of politics is sucked into petitions or protests that don’t lead to anything tangible. We vote for non-binding initiatives and call it a day, feeling like we’ve accomplished something without actually making any concrete change. At a time when Bernie Sanders’ campaign showed there is immense support for getting big money out politics, now is the time to do something rather than merely not nothing. So what would that something actually look like?
It’s worth restating that the only way to permanently overturn Citizens United is with a constitutional amendment. As Election Day nears there are two ways to build momentum toward that goal. The first is to support a legitimate, concrete amendment proposal with clear language that would overturn Citizens United and pave the way for even bigger reforms. There are a few different proposals out there but I recommend Citizens Take Action’s Restore Democracy Amendment, which I wrote to offer the best combination of impact, clarity, and bipartisan appeal. Urging your Congressional representatives to support the Restore Democracy Amendment or supporting the organization will yield much better results than backing a benign ballot question.
The second something you can do is support Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency. I know. Benghazi. Emails. Phoniness. And most of all, she’s not Bernie. But Clinton has pledged to introduce an amendment to overturn Citizens United and Donald Trump hasn’t. If you want the unpopular decision overturned, making phone calls or knocking on doors in a swing state for Clinton would be a lot more productive than turning out the vote for Prop 59, which brings us back to how you should actually vote on that pesky proposition.
Despite its numerous shortcomings you should vote Yes on Prop 59 if for no other reason than it will look terrible if Californians vote No. If Prop 59 fails nobody will know why, they’ll just know that it did. And since there’s no box on a ballot that says “No because I’m tired of gutless ballot initiatives even though I oppose Citizens United,” a simple Yes will have to suffice.
But as you vote Yes, remember that supporting real reforms and the candidates and groups who fight for them will bring us much closer to our goal than supporting ineffectual efforts like Prop 59. The problems caused by big money in politics are real; our solutions must be real as well.