By Eric Francis
WOODSTOCK – Vermont has developed something of a tradition in recent decades of having topical issues with national, and even international, ramifications pop up on the annual town meeting ballots alongside school budgets and line items for road salt.
This year voters in Woodstock and dozens of other communities large and small across the Green Mountains will be asked whether or not they agree with now two-year-old decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Citizens United case where the justices ruled in a narrow 5-to-4 vote that even giant multi-national corporations have the same right to open their wallets and offer support to a political candidate as the humblest of living, breathing citizens.
The consequences of the decision have already had a vivid effect on spending for political ads within the current Republican presidential primary and, perhaps not surprisingly, the entire concept outraged Senator Bernie Sanders who took to the U.S. Senate floor this December to introduce a bill calling for the rare step of actually amending the Constitution in order to void the legal logic upon which the five justices relied.
“I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision,” Sanders said as he introduced the amendment. “In my view, a corporation is not a person. In my view, a corporation does not have First Amendment rights to spend as much money as it wants, without disclosure, on a political campaign. Corporations should not be able to go into their treasuries and spend millions and millions of dollars to buy elections. I do not believe that is what American democracy is supposed to be about. I do not believe that is what the bravest of the brave from our country fighting for democracy fought and died to preserve.”
In Vermont, the effort to put a resolution on town meeting warnings around the state asking citizens to simply vote yes-or-no as to whether they would encourage their representatives at the state and federal levels to pursue such a Constitutional amendment has been put together by a loosely organized coalition of familiar activist groups including Public Citizen and VPIRG but the bulk of the effort has been over the Internet on Facebook and at sites like Vermonterssaycorporationsarenotpeople.org
Locally, Woodstock residents Chris Lloyd and former side-judge William Boardman were the most active signature gatherers for the petition to put the issue on the town warning but the petition itself was a victim of its own success when the selectmen voted at their January 17 meeting to use the board’s own authority to go ahead and place the question on the ballot.
“We’d already gotten about halfway with the signatures when the first opportunity to go to a select board meeting came up,” Boardman explained this week. “I had no idea whether they would be receptive or not so I just played it straight, made my pitch, and three of them said yes, one voted no, and one abstained.”
Although some prominent legal scholars have expressed doubts in recent years, given the evolution of politics and population demographics in a country that now has over 300 million citizens, that any Constitutional amendment could ever work its way through the system, Boardman said he feels its an effort worth making.
“It’s important because it affects the whole country and to get a Constitutional amendment through the Congress as it is presently configured will take a tremendous amount of grassroots pressure, because those people aren’t going to do it,” Boardman said, conceding the scale of the challenge, even if the concept has some popular support. “There is no majority for it now, I’m sure, so that’s why it’s important,” Boardman argued, “These Supreme Court decisions say what the Constitution says, whether or not the Constitution says it, and so to fix that you kind of need a Constitutional amendment to say, “No, no. The Constitution says what we say it means.”
By Eric Francis