Amendment 65 is not the only path to election reform
If Amendment 65 passes Nov. 6, Colorado will become the 10th state to join the national effort to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that allows corporations and rich individuals to contribute unlimited funds to political campaigns.
In addition, dozens of municipalities, counties, private organizations and other groups have endorsed similar legislation or proposed ballot resolutions.
Just this month, after months of effort, the city of Fort Collins joined Boulder as the second Colorado city to join the anti-Citizens United movement.
California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont have enacted laws at the state level to rein in the money in elections.
Meantime, Move to Amend, one of the active national groups supporting a constitutional amendment to curtail corporate money in politics, wants such an amendment to declare that money is not speech and corporations are not persons.
As Move to Amend says on its website, “The Supreme Court is misguided in principle and wrong on the law” with the Citizens United decision. “In a democracy, the people rule.”
While Amendment 65 might eventually contribute to a change in federal election law that would exclude corporate financial participation, it will be a long and arduous struggle.
As Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, which supports the amendment, says, “(This) is the first step in, really, a long-term movement. It’s an opportunity to let our congressional delegation know this is something we feel is important.”
Unless Congress puts a time limit on an amendment to the Constitution, it can sit for years awaiting passage by a super-majority in Congress and ratification by two-thirds of the states.
Seven years is the usual time limit set by Congress for the amendment process, though that figure is arbitrary and could be lengthened. Some amendments have languished for years before the ratification process was completed.
Even if passed by Congress and ratified by the states within the seven-year window, Colorado could still be required to go through the next several elections — including two presidential contests — under the existing unsatisfactory rules.
If fair and transparent elections are important enough, Colorado voters might consider adopting a different method of conducting elections. One possibility is to take authority for running elections away from elected officials and place it in the hands of a nonpartisan commission appointed jointly by the governor and the Legislature.
While the Corporate Contributions Amendment might reduce the influence of money in Colorado elections, it would do little to curb the extreme partisanship that has so divided the country that its governing processes have become dysfunctional.
As New York Times contributor Richard L. Hansen wrote after the 2006 election — which followed the disastrous 2000 election settled by the Supreme Court in favor of George Bush — people were ready to scrap machine voting and return to paper ballots.
But, the Times said, “This reaction to the bugs and glitches shows that Americans have not learned the right lesson from 2000: The problem is not with the technology of running our elections but rather with the people running them.”
The Times recommended, “The United States should join the rest of the world’s advanced democracies and put nonpartisan professionals in charge. We need officials whose ultimate allegiance is to the fairness, integrity and professionalism of the election, not to helping one party or the other gain political advantage.”
A 2009 article in California Law Review makes a similar point.
“One of the hallmarks of a mature democracy is professionalized, centralized and non-partisan election administration,” Hansen wrote. “It is hardly news that the United States does not fit this model.”
The Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University has developed model legislation that limits election officials from engaging in certain partisan activities and requires election policies to be set well in advance of an election and policies and procedures to be set by a non-partisan, or politically diverse, commission.
Other models offer different options, but all share the goal of taking partisan politics out of election management.
The quickest route to electoral reform in Colorado would be to take the management of elections out of the hands of partisan politicians — especially politically affiliated secretaries of state with their obvious conflicts of interest.
A state-based election reform could quickly bring transparency and fairness to Colorado elections, while leaving opportunities to participate in wider national reforms as opportunities arise.