This is the second of three parts examining the referendum questions on the November 6 state election ballot.
Published in the October 26, 2018 edition
By DAN TOMASELLO
A proposed ballot question seeks to begin the process of potentially regulating money in politics.
Question 2 would establish the Citizens Commission Concerning a Constitutional Amendment for Government of the People. The commission would be tasked with considering and recommending potential amendments to the United States Constitution in order to “establish that corporations do not have the same constitutional rights as human beings.” The proposed law would also regulate campaign contributions and expenditures.
A yes vote would create the citizens commission to advance an amendment to the United States Constitution to limit the influence of money in elections and establish that corporations do not have the same rights as people. A no vote would not create the commission.
According to Question 2, “any resident of Massachusetts who is a United States citizen would be able to apply for appointment to the 15-member commission.”
“Members would serve without compensation,” reads Question 2. “The governor, the secretary of the commonwealth, the state attorney general, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, and the president of the state Senate would each appoint three members of the commission and, in making these appointments, would seek to ensure that the commission reflects a range of geographic, political and demographic backgrounds.”
According to Question 2, the commission would be required to conduct research and take testimony. The commission would issue a report on five different areas including the impact of political spending in the state and “any limitations on the state’s ability to regulate corporations and other entities in light of Supreme Court decisions that allow corporations to assert certain constitutional rights.”
The commission’s report would also make recommendations for proposed constitutional amendments and would conduct an analysis of those amendments. Lastly, the commission would make “recommendations for advancing proposed amendments to the United States Constitution.”
Similar to local municipal boards, the commission would be required to abide by the state’s Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law.
“The commission’s first report would be due Dec. 31, 2019, and the secretary of the commonwealth would be required to deliver the commission’s report to the State Legislature, the United States Congress and the president of the United States,” reads Question 2. “The proposed law states that, if any of its parts were declared invalid, the other parts would stay in effect.”
The proposed law would take effect on Jan. 1, 2019.
Question 2’s origins dates back to the Supreme Court’s controversial 5-4 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision. In the January 2010 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that political spending is a form of free speech that is protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court also ruled that the government cannot prevent corporations and unions from spending money to support or oppose candidates running for political office.
While corporations and unions are prohibited from giving money directly to candidates, they can allocate funds through other areas such as creating political action committees that televise political advertisements on behalf of a candidate or a cause. Super PACs often use what is referred to as “dark money” while supporting various candidates or initiatives.
“Dark money refers to political spending meant to influence the decision of a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown,” the Center for Responsive Politics (Opensecrets.org) states on its website. “Dark money can refer to funds spent by a political nonprofit or super PAC.”
According to Opensecrets.org, the 2016 election cost close to $6.5 billion, representing a 3 percent increase from 2012’s price tag of just under $6.3 billion.
Question 2 has received bipartisan support across the state. The ballot question’s supporters include Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, Republican auditor candidate Helen Brady, Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton and former Republican State Rep. Daniel Winslow.
“Corruption in government isn’t a Republican problem or Democratic problem, it’s an American problem,” said Jeff Clements, who chairs the ballot committee and serves as president of the national organization American Promise. “These leaders are modeling how Americans — Democrats, Republicans, and independents — are working together to fix our democracy.”
According to the State House News Service, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, recently sent a letter to Massachusetts Republicans urging them to vote yes on Question 2. Simpson said he has been assisting a similar ballot effort in Wyoming.
“This is a problem of a glut of money dominating our political system is simply too big to leave to one party or the other,” Simpson said.
WCVB’s “On the Record” recently asked Republican nominee for secretary of state Anthony Amore where he stood on Question 2.
“I think that Citizens United is the law of the land,” said Amore. “The Supreme Court ruled on it already.”
The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance has also come out against Question 2.
“The controversy surrounding the Citizens United decision hinges on our cherished right to Freedom of Speech,” the alliance writes in a statement. “In the decision, the court ruled to expand that freedom and apply it equally to all entities and organizations, rather than just the arbitrary list of winners and losers selected by elected officials in previous campaign finance laws. This is a good thing. The First Amendment protection of our Freedom of Speech is one of the pillars of our democracy and should be preserved and expanded at every possible opportunity. The less government standing in the way of the exercise of that right, the stronger it is.”
— The State House News Service contributed to this report.