Money should not count as free speech, Santa Clara County lawmakers decided Tuesday.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to adopt a resolution to overturn Citizens United, a landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision which allowed unlimited election spending by corporations, labor unions and super PACs.
Led by Supervisor Dave Cortese, in partnership with Santa Clara County Move to Amend, the resolution supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishing that “money is not speech, campaign contributions and expenditures may be reasonably limited, and only natural persons have constitutional rights.”
According to the Registrar of Voters, individual contribution limits in Santa Clara County are set at $500 for each election for candidates running for the Board of Supervisors, District Attorney, County Sheriff or County Assessor. However, contributions are capped at $1,000, if candidates accept the position’s expenditure limits. Those candidates are limited to spending no more than $250,000 for the Board of Supervisors and $500,000 for other positions.
The city of San Jose caps contributions at $600 per donor.
But Cortese said frustrations stem from corporations sidestepping the limits by this case law.
“I’m a First Amendment purist in my own mind, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that a corporation has the constitutional rights of a person,” Cortese told San José Spotlight. “A corporation is a legal fiction created in order to enable commerce on behalf of its shareholders.”
Cortese hopes his proposed resolution minimizes powerful corporation influence over public discourse and elections. According to details released by Cortese’s office, super PACs raised about $1.8 billion and spent $1.1 billion in the 2016 election cycle. Those numbers were cited from the Center for Responsive Politics.
But Ann Ravel, a former Federal Election Commission chair under the Obama administration, who is running against Cortese for Senate, thinks the issue is less about personhood or campaign speech, and more about a lack of transparency and reporting of these donations deemed legal by the court.
“Frankly, having such a resolution really will accomplish nothing to affect the Supreme Court to change its decision,” Ravel told San José Spotlight. “It’s so true that a lot of people are concerned that there’s unlimited expenditures, by corporations and individuals who are wealthy. But this decision is part of a continuum of cases dealing with campaign finances, and they ruled there’s not corruption if they’re done independently.”
As the Digital Deception Project Director at MapLight, Ravel leads the development and promotion of policies that tackle online disinformation in politics. She thinks the best response to economic disparity caused by campaign spending is through more investigative reporting and local level involvement.
“People should be confident of who they’re supporting and their track record of voting and donations,” she said.
Cortese countered that local action could continue the trend of historically federal issues getting pushed down to different levels of government – similar to how Santa Clara County has dealt with immigration by supporting Dreamers and reproductive rights by funding Planned Parenthood.
“The idea is, eventually we’ll kind of get the whole country stitched up on the same page. We feel like we’re part of a larger movement,” Cortese said.
Rob Means, with the local chapter of Move to Amend, agrees that the local decision can help impact a national movement.
“I feel this is another piece of moving our country forward with a Constitutional amendment,” Means told San José Spotlight following the vote Tuesday. “We’ve been working on it for 10 years, and the momentum just continues to build.”
In the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court held that political spending is protected under the First Amendment’s free speech clause, and the government is prohibited from restricting independent spending on political communication by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions, and other associations.
In the 5-4 vote, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion held that previous suppression of political speech based on the speaker’s identity as a nonprofit or for-profit corporation violated protected free speech. Associate Justice John Stevens dissented, arguing the ruling rejected “the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government.” Stevens was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
In 2010, Sen. Mitch McConnell supported the ruling, saying it was “an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights.” President Barack Obama disagreed and said the decision “gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington.”
“This is a particularly steep climb, because it involves amending the Constitution itself, which is, from a procedural standpoint, challenging,” Cortese said. “But I think there’s always a lot of hope when big counties, big urban centers – in our case representing Silicon Valley – get involved, I do think it it has influence.”