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December 22, 2014
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editorial

Stuffing ballot boxes


Americans hold the ballot box sacred. And so it was no great surprise when many citizens of Bloomingburg, NY celebrated when Judge Stephan Schick, Justice of Sullivan County’s Supreme Court, upheld the county’s Board of Elections (BOE) decision disqualifying dozens of recently registered voters. Those voters had signed up just in time to cast their ballots in the Village of Bloomingburg’s recent election. All of the now officially disqualified voters had been challenged on the grounds that they did not really live at the Bloomingburg addresses they claimed—addresses in buildings owned by Shalom Lamm, who is developing a 396-unit cluster of townhouses in the village. The crucial Bloomingburg mayoral election pitted the current mayor, Mark Berentsen, a supporter of Lamm’s townhouse project, vs. Frank Girardi, a candidate from the Rural Heritage Party, who opposes it. With the challenged votes thrown out, Girardi won, and he was sworn in as the new mayor on Tuesday, April 8.

In his ruling last Thursday, Judge Schick stated, “This was an attempt to stuff the ballot box.”

Stuffing the ballot box is a time-honored form of corruption that can influence elections. But as we see it, another way to influence elections is through political campaign contributions—legitimately and, when abused, illegitimately.

Last week, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), the U.S. Supreme Court handed a victory to big-money donors when it struck down aggregate limits on how much one person can spend in an election cycle to support candidates and party committees. (Previously the limit was $123,200 per election cycle, per individual donor.) Though the court left untouched federal campaign limits that restrict how much a donor can give to any one candidate ($2,600) or to any one party committee, it cleared the way for a single donor to support an unlimited number of candidates and party committees, with the majority calling such limits unconstitutional. Dissenting, Justice Stephen Breyer opined that the decision would allow “a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.” (Previously, aggregated limits had ceiling of $48,000 for one person to support any combined number of individual candidates and $74,600 to support a combined number of party committees.)

Looking at the Bloomingburg case as an example, when citizens learn about stuffing-the-ballot-box shenanigans in their own municipality, they tend to express indignation, if not complete outrage. Yet when the corrupting influence of limitless campaign contributions in presidential and congressional elections, in state governors’ races and, yes, mayoral elections, citizens mostly sit and accept it. It seems obvious to us that silence is not going to fix the corrupting influence of money in Washington, DC, in statehouses, or anywhere else. We believe outrage is called for, and action. Citizens in large numbers need to demand real campaign finance reform. The laws we have, already insufficient to counter the corrupting influence of money, are slowly being dismantled by the Supreme Court.

In our opinion, Citizens United v. FEC is among the Robert’s court’s worst decisions. It allows corporations, unions and super PACs to spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for the election or defeat of candidates. In effect it likens corporations to people with the same free-speech rights as citizens under the First Amendment and likens money to speech. To the average non-lawyer citizen, the idea that corporations are people and money is speech defies common sense, and around the country a number of organizations are working to promote a constitutional amendment to abolish this idea (see www.wethepeopleamendment.org; www.followthemoney.org; www.democracyisforpeple.org; www.commoncause.org; https://movetoamend.org) to name a few.

There are two ways to amend the constitution: by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures. (After that, voters in each state must ratify the amendment.)

It seems that an ever growing number of citizens believe there is little hope that Congress will pass effective campaign finance reform the halls of public office, and so they work for a constitutional convention. The underlying question is: without campaign finance reform does democracy have a chance?

[For a list of state and local resolutions passed, state and federal officials endorsing constitutional remedies to end corporate personhood and constitutional amendments introduced on Capitol Hill in the 113th Congress, see www.united4thepeople.org/.]