A referendum on the concept of "corporate personhood" and generally curbing election spending by special interest groups will appear on the Tuesday election ballots in the cities of Fort Atkinson and Whitewater.
Councils in both communities either formally granted or took no action to advance the measure brought forward by the Rock River Affiliate of Move to Amend to the April 2 ballot.
The purpose of the resolution is to show the communities' support of the national Move to Amend movement to rescind the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that granted Constitutional status to corporations, and by doing so, rolled back previous legal spending limits on political campaigns. The ruling paved the way for a flood of campaign cash from corporations, unions and wealthy interests.
In both communities, more than 775 signatures were certified in December from petitions that asked their respective city's councils to place the matter on the April 2 ballot and give resident electors of each community - Fort Atkinson and Whitewater - a chance to vote on the issue themselves.
The exact wording of the proposed referendum in both communities reads: "Resolved, that 'We the People' of the City of Fort Atkinson (Whitewater), Wisconsin, seek to reclaim democracy from the expansion of corporate personhood rights and the corrupting influence of unregulated political contributions and spending. We stand with the Move to Amend campaign and communities across the country to support passage of an amendment to the United States Constitution stating: 1. Only human beings - not corporations, limited liability companies, unions, nonprofit organizations or similar associations and corporate entities - are endowed with constitutional rights, and, 2. Money is not speech, and therefore, regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech. Be it further resolved, that we hereby instruct our state and federal representatives to enact resolutions and legislation to advance this effort."
Organizers argue that point No. 1 of the resolution above abolishes the concept of corporate personhood, which seemingly was approved in the Citizens United decision.
Further, they say the concept that money is not speech in point No. 2 is necessary for effective campaign finance reform in order to prevent wealthy individuals or other nonprofit, noncorporate groups or unions from continuing to bankroll elections.
"While it is true these are advisory referendums directing our elected officials to support a national Constitutional amendment, these referendums can serve as a political litmus test for what the average person thinks," James Hartwick of Whitewater said.
He was a leader in gathering petitions in Whitewater.
"A 'yes' vote in the heartland of rural Wisconsin sends a message that people are fed up with how big money influences elections and sends a message that the 'legal bribery' has to stop," he said. "People want their government to represent them, rather than doing the bidding of large corporations, big unions and those with the deepest pockets. While currently far too many elected officials may feel compelled to 'not bite the hand that funds them' and act on behalf of their large contributors, they cannot stray too far from the will of an engaged and perhaps outraged populace."
Daniel Fary of Oakland, who spearheaded formation of the Rock River Affiliate, agreed.
He noted that a "yes" vote would demonstrate support for the amendment and energize other Move to Amend groups to move forward with petitions.
Fary said other grassroots organizations would take note of more conservative communities such as Fort Atkinson and Whitewater approving such a measure and moving forward with their own efforts.
"It is this grassroots overwhelming push from below that will finally force our politicians at the top to act by making the Constitutional amendment," he said.
To date, at least six Wisconsin counties and municipalities - Eau Claire County, West Allis, Madison, Dane County, the Town of Westport and Dunn County - have passed resolutions in support of a constitutional amendment to address concerns about big money in elections.
Communities in the region that have held Move to Amend start-up sessions include thos of Sauk City/Baraboo, Walworth/Elkhorn, Janesville, Edgerton and the Town of Fulton. Other Move to Amend groups are starting up in the areas of Mount Horeb, Cross Plains, Mazomanie, Black Earth, Waukesha County, New Berlin, Columbia County, Monroe and Belleville.
Also, United Wisconsin, a statewide grassroots organization, has agreed to assist with petition campaigns in the villages of Shorewood, Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay and the cities of Racine and Kenosha, hopefully for ballot referendums in a 2014 election.
"Our group, the Rock River Affiliate of Move To Amend, intends to pursue resolutions from many towns in Jefferson County and Walworth County throughout 2013," Fary said, noting that it also will be working toward prompting additional referendums in other local cities and villages, as well. "Our intent is to keep working until we have a State of Wisconsin resolution sent on to the U.S. Congress."
On the national scale, 11 state legislatures have approved measures supporting a constitutional amendment. Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan and Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan formally introduced the "We the People" amendment in Congress on Feb. 11.
"Though dozens of possible, related amendments have been introduced into the U.S. Congress, about 13 of which remain, the We the People Amendment of Move To Amend differentiates itself from all the others, since it is the only one that incorporates both concepts of 'corporations are not people,' and 'money is not speech.' Both are required to enable the return of full governance to ordinary citizens," Fary said.
He noted that even once passed, the amendment itself will not curtail political spending; rather, it merely will allow state and local governments to regulate spending. Previously, many such laws were in place and subsequently struck down by the Citizens United decision.
Fary noted that there is a tremendous amount of activity going on in Wisconsin to support the effort.
"I am confident we will have a 28th "We the People Amendment," Fary said. "Citizens can't stand the abandonment our elected officials have given us, as the officials pursue the agendas of their wealthy donors."
Both Hartwick and Fary agreed that support for such an amendment has been bipartisan.
"There is strong bipartisan support to get big money out of elections and to eliminate the extension of constitutional rights - rights that should be reserved for the people - to corporations and unions," Hartwick said.
In the November 2012 election, Montana, which went to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Colorado, which went to President Barack Obama, voted on statewide referendums. Each state passed them, supporting the effort by 70 percent.
"This indicates the strong bipartisan support of the average person for a constitutional amendment," Hartwick said. "It doesn't matter your party affiliation. People from all sides can see that the system isn't broken; it's fixed."
He said most people agree that selected officials should not be owned by special interests with deep pockets.
"In fact, over 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats agree that we need to get big money out of politics," he said. "Elected officials should serve their constituents, not large multinational corporations, big unions, Super PACs or others with deep pockets. Small businesses and the average person win when politicians listen to them, rather than spending their time chasing and appeasing their big-dollar donors, who expect favorable legislation in return for their contributions.
"Corporations and unions are legal entities that arguably help the economy, but that does not mean they are, in fact, people deserving of Constitutional personhood rights," he added. "We the people, actual human beings, will benefit when we clearly establish through a Constitutional Amendment that legal entities such as corporations, unions and, for that matter, the government, are meant to serve us, not the other way around."
Lastly, he pointed out that the basic rights within the United States, the Bill of Rights, are amendments to the Constitution.
"Amendments tend to be used to expand the rights of we the people," Hartwick said, citing examples of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote and the 26th Amendment that gave 18-year-olds the right to vote.
"It is not partisan to want to amend the Constitution to quiet the noise of cash pouring into elections so that our representatives can hear the average person," he said.
Both Fary and Hartwick and other participants in the Move to Amend Rock River Affiliate hope that residents of Fort Atkinson and Whitewater will join the list of 500 communities nationwide that have supported the effort.
"We urge citizens in Whitewater and Fort Atkinson to vote 'yes' on the April 2 election ballot in support of the nonbinding local ballot resolution directing Congress to support a constitutional amendment indicating that only human beings are endowed with constitutional personhood rights, and that money is not speech, and therefore, political contributions and spending can be regulated," Hartwick concluded.