In this election, California voters can tell Congress to get big money out of politics. Proposition 59 asks voters if they want to instruct their elected officials to use all of their authority, including passage of a constitutional amendment, to overturn rulings by the Supreme Court that have struck down prohibitions on corporate spending in political ads and rein in the amount that billionaires can contribute to campaigns.
Both public opinion polls and the results of similar ballot measures in other states have indicated that roughly 25% of Americans agree with Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United and other cases that argue campaign spending is free speech and that corporations deserve the same constitutional rights as living, breathing people. Fair enough. Those citizens should express those views by voting no on Proposition 59.
What’s intriguing, however, are a few elitist voices who argue that the Citizens United ruling was a disaster for democracy and yet voters shouldn’t waste their time saying so. Really?
Liberal pundits dismiss Proposition 59 because it doesn’t actually pass a constitutional amendment to limit campaign spending, it merely tells elected officials that voters want them to pass an amendment. This is because the U.S. Constitution does not allow citizens to directly amend it themselves. Amendments are passed only when drafted by elected representatives and ratified by at least three quarters of state legislatures.
Proposition 59 revives a process known as voter instructions that dates back to the founding period of the United States. Early colonists used non-binding instructions to tell the elected representatives they sent to the Continental Congress to declare independence from England. They used non-binding instructions to tell their delegates how to draft our current Constitution and what amendments they wanted made to our Constitution.
Indeed, the 17th Amendment to our Constitution, providing for direct election of U.S. Senators, came about in response to voter instructions in California and other states. Proposition 59 is modelled after these.
What America’s constitutional framers understood then, and what most Americans still know today, is that public opinion matters. Consent of the governed is in fact the sole source of a government’s legitimacy in a democratic republic.
Protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or the Tea Party do not legally bind elected officials to take any action. But they do alter both the public discourse and the behavior of politicians who still do react to sufficiently strong public opinion.
California’s state constitution includes an explicit right to instruct our elected officials. The delegates who drafted that provision made clear that they expected any elected official who could not in good faith follow formal instructions from their constituents to resign. Two U.S. senators who later became President (John Quincy Adams and John Tyler) did in fact step down from the U.S. Senate in order to allow other public servants to fulfill instructions from their states that they disagreed with.
While voters cannot force elected officials to resign, they do have a chance to vote them out of office. Voters may, or may not, choose to do so if any of California’s elected representatives ignore their constituents’ wishes as expressed in Proposition 59.
But, let’s not pretend that speaking our minds doesn’t matter. Those voters who ignore Proposition 59, or vote against it because they don’t like that they are being asked to weigh in on an important issue, will send the message that they agree with the Supreme Court in Citizens United. For better or worse, that message will matter.
Democracy is not a spectator sport, nor is it only about passing laws and electing representatives. Democracy requires robust public debate precisely along the lines that Proposition 59 is fostering. The only waste of time is sitting idly on the sidelines, complaining in silence.