Kaja Rebane wants Dane County residents to send a message that corporations aren't people and money isn't speech.
The UW-Madison grad student helped organize a successful effort to put referenda on the April 5 ballot in both the city of Madison and Dane County. It ask voters whether they believe corporations and people, and money and speech, should be considered distinct.
The local movement, spearheaded by South Central Wisconsin Move to Amend, is part of a national one that aims to amend the U.S. Constitution, to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Jan. 21, 2010, decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That controversial ruling, passed 5-4, found that the government could not restrict corporate spending on independent political advertisements, saying this violated the First Amendment.
While organizing on this issue is being done nationwide, Dane County is one of the first to hold a referendum on it. "People are watching what's going on here," Rebane says. "Across the country, we're being leaders here."
Rebane believes the nonbinding votes will pass, but adds, "It's really important that they pass with high margins. If you have a low turnout, even if it passes, it's not as meaningful."
Both the Madison Common Council and Dane County Board approved putting the referendum on the ballot. The wording of the two referenda is different (see the website for South Central Wisconsin Move to Amend), but the goal is the same. City of Madison residents can vote on both; other Dane County voters on just the Dane County version.
Locally, there's not much vocal opposition to the referenda, but Rebane thinks that could change as the election draws nearer.
One critic is David Blaska, Isthmus' conservative blogger, who argues that the movement is an assault on American democracy. In an opinion column ("The Push to End Free Speech," 1/13/11), Blaska writes: "Money is not speech? Then why does Mike McCabe want my money?" He quotes a fundraising appeal from McCabe, head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Rebane sees it differently: "If you say money is speech, then you have a situation where the rich get to speak a lot more than the poor. It sets up something very poisonous to democracy."
She also argues that the nation's founders had no intention of giving corporations citizenship. "There's no indication they thought corporations should be people or money should be speech," she says. "Those were creations of the courts, with a lot of help from corporate lawyers."
The referendum, says Rebane, is a small first step in undoing the Supreme Court's decision. But it's also a great opportunity to raise awareness about the issue.
"A lot of people really don't know why we're in the situation we're in," she says, referring to proposed cuts in social services and the elimination of environmental safeguards. "All of these things people are upset about, but haven't necessarily connected the dots."