Unlike the three statewide ballot questions, which will change state law, the non-binding questions ask state legislators to support a resolution calling upon Congress to take specific actions.
The so-called Democracy Amendment (democracyamendmentmass.org), which essentially overturns the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, will appear on ballots in all numerous communities, including Melrose. The question (which varies in number by municipality and in some cases precinct) calls for: 1) a constitutional amendment affirming corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of human beings, and 2) Congress and state governments may limit political contributions and spending.
More than 300 communities across the country and 73 in Massachusetts have passed local resolutions calling for this amendment, according to spokesman Tyler Creighton of Common Cause, a group promoting open, honest government. Voters in Montana and Colorado as well as Massachusetts are taking the next step with a ballot initiative in the upcoming election.
“The outpouring of support for amending the Constitution to overturn the Citizens United decision has been tremendous. This is truly a grassroots effort by citizens fed up with big money in politics and an increasingly dysfunctional democracy,” Creighton said. “People from all across the commonwealth, and from all backgrounds and political persuasions have taken up the cause and brought it to their local officials, town meetings, and most recently to the 2012 ballot.”
Local interest in this matter is so high because the ruling threatens to affect local politics, said Arlington resident Richard Terry, who helped get the question on the ballot and has been coordinating support for it since May.
“Nobody quite knows what the implications of a Citizens United decision will be locally. It’s possible under this ruling that a developer could use lots of money to try to influence what happens at a local level in terms of the electoral process for Town Meeting members, or for selectmen,” said Terry, also member of Common Cause and Occupy Arlington.
The integrity of city and town elections are at stake, agreed Acton resident Lee Ketelsen, a spokesman for Move to Amend, which is co-sponsoring the ballot initiative.
“It affects democracy all the way down to the local level. We vote locally and that’s the level where democracy starts,” Ketelsen said.
Corporations with the rights of people have a disproportionate amount of influence over who gets elected to Congress and what they do there, Terry said, and a cigarette company’s right of free speech means they can advertise near schools.
“The people paying attention are those who care about democracy and the political process,” Ketelsen said. “It’s the patriotism we have — the feeling we have that we had a great democracy and we don’t anymore.”
Budget for All
A second questions facing some voters calls for state legislators to support a federal budget plan preventing cuts to programs such as Social Security, Medicare and unemployment assistance, creates and protects jobs, closes corporate tax loopholes and raises taxes on incomes higher than $250,000, and redirects military spending to domestic programs.
Called Budget for All (budget4allmass.org), the question will be on the ballot in 91 Massachusetts cities and towns, including Arlington, Belmont, Lexington, Lincoln, Winchester and Woburn.
“None of us really knew at the beginning how much this would take off,” said Arlington resident Susan Lees, who has been gathering support for Budget for All.
As with the Democracy Amendment, whose supporters often work in partnership with Budget For All advocates, this issue resonates with people because it may affect their everyday lives, Lees said.
“I think people in Arlington for a long time have been worried about the funding for our community. I helped work on the override recently, so I think people were pretty aware because of the situation that schools were at risk, library funding and lots of other programs,” Lees said, referring to a June 2011 $6.5 million override that saved Arlington from deep budget cuts.
But people are also looking at the bigger picture, Lees said.
“I think people are very upset. A lot of people are hurting, inequality is at an all-time high, and people are saying, ‘No, this isn’t the way we want to go. We don’t want to see programs cut for ourselves or for others,’” Lees said. “It’s a moral question as much as anything else.”
Getting this question on the ballot was a victory, Lees said, but it’s only the beginning.
“We want to be able to get people organized for the fight that’s going to ensue after the elections,” she said. “We’re doing this in Massachusetts but we’re also part of a much bigger network where other states watch what’s happening here and hopefully get inspired.”