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For Massachusetts Voters: A Short Debate On Ballot Question 2

Massachusetts ballot Question 2 aims to reverse the Citizens United Supreme Court decision through the creation of a state commission. In this short debate, there’s a case for both support and opposition.

A "yes" vote would begin a long process that could lead to more limits on political spending and corporate rights. A "no" vote would keep the status quo.

Joining us for a short debate on Question 2: Jeff Clements of People Govern, Not Money, who supports a "yes" vote, and Paul Craney with the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, who wants a "no" vote. Paul is the spokesperson, and serves on the board of that organization.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: At its center, this is really about the Citizens United decision. That's the 2010 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling dealing with regulation of political campaign spending by organizations, and corporate personhood. Paul, can you explain how what we have now is working?

Paul Craney, Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance: Sure. So after 2010, the Supreme Court essentially ruled that Citizens United is the law of the land. What that basically means is it's a campaign finance law that was clear and fair for everyone -- meaning individuals, employers and unions are able to have as much speech as they would like in elections and campaigns, so long as they don't coordinate with the candidate or the party. That's fair. That's clear. That allows the threshold for everyone to achieve the same amount of voice that they would like. And it's worth preserving as our First Amendment right.

Jeff, why are you advocating for change?

Jeff Clements, People Govern, Not Money: Well, because there's a couple of false premises in the notion about what Citizens United meant. We don't have as much free speech as we like. We have now a right to spend as much money as we can to influence the political process. That's not the same as free speech. I think every American has a free speech right, and every American should have a free speech right.

What we don't have is -- if we have billions of dollars, whether we're corporations, unions or billionaires -- to buy a political system, drown out the voices of other Americans, and corrupt the political process. That's what Citizens United did when it struck down reasonable campaign finance laws that had stood for many, many years. And subsequent cases have done even worse, wiping out state laws that had stood for more than a century.

Paul, ballot Question 2 would create an unpaid, nonpartisan commission on limiting political spending and corporate rights. That commission would write up its recommendations in the next year. There would still be several steps for the public and voters to weigh in. What's the harm in getting that discussion started?

Paul Craney: Thank you for bringing that up. I mean, any time you look at campaign finance law, it's so important to look at the details, because there's in theory, and then there's in practice. Question 2 would essentially empower a group of people -- in this case, it's very specific, and includes a lot of politicians at the Statehouse. So: lawmakers, the governor, the attorney general, and many others -- and frankly, some of those folks are Democrats, some are Republicans -- but for the most part in Massachusetts, most people are Democrats who are elected.

And that's fine if you're a Democrat, but if you're someone that is not a Democrat, if you're someone that's an Independent or a Republican, you should have concern. Because what you're doing with this question, if you vote "yes," is you are empowering a bunch of elected officials to draft restrictions on your free speech. And that's very problematic. Any elected official -- Republican, Democrat or Independent -- has one goal. It's called self-preservation.

Campaign finance law is often used as a weapon to silence opposing views, and silence their opposition. And that's unfortunate. And unfortunately, in this case, with Question 2, you are empowering elected officials at the Statehouse to draft legislation to restrict the public's speech. That should be terrifying for most people, when they hear that.

Jeff, you're clearly on the other side of that coin. Government has so many commissions. Citizens United has been hotly debated already by activists and media legal experts. Why is there more study needed?

Jeff Clements: Well, it's not just more study. I have to correct a mischaracterization about what this law does. It does not empower politicians to draft anything, let alone free speech restrictions. Go to peoplegovern.org. You can read it yourself.

What this law does, is empower citizens. Every single voter in Massachusetts is eligible to apply to be on the citizen commission. The law, if you vote "yes" on Question 2, will create this volunteer, no-cost-to-the-taxpayer citizen commission, representing the citizens. It's very clear that it has to have political diversity, demographic diversity. Its intent is to get Democrats, Republicans, Independents from the citizenry to serve together to solve a significant problem for this country, and this Commonwealth.

And that problem is: we have existential threats right now to the country from climate catastrophe, $21 trillion in debt, an opioid crisis. We can't solve these problems if our political system is bought and paid for by the same interests that are profiting from the status quo. We need a constitutional amendment to end the corruption of our political system, and empower the citizens, not the politicians. The current system favors incumbents.

The U.S. Supreme Court.
Credit Heather Brandon / NEPR
The U.S. Supreme Court.

Paul, you have said that even if someone disagrees with Citizens United, a constitutional amendment is a dangerous way about addressing it. The only other option -- isn't that just the Supreme Court?

Paul Craney: Yeah, and the Supreme Court rightly ruled on this case. And the reason why this is dangerous to put [in] the U.S. Constitution is because you're discriminating. You're discriminating against certain voices in the political process.

Citizens United was clear and fair. It allowed employers, individuals and unions the same ability to express their points of view as much as they want. There's nothing that's unfair about that. But when you put into the state constitution that there are winners and losers, that's very problematic. That's actually why Citizens United happened, because there was layer after layer of campaign finance law that was used as a weapon to silence some people's point of view, and their speech.

This ballot question, again, I want to stress, is very important, when you look at the details. It argues -- you know, and I don't knock Jeff. I think he has very good intentions. But it strips employers and unions of rights, not just in campaign finance law, but even more so. I mean, I'm sitting here with you at your studio. I have no right to come here, and neither does the government, to say I want to search your human personnel records, right? You would say to the government, go get yourself a search warrant. There are rights for this organization, just like there's rights for unions to advocate for their employees, just like there's rights for businesses to advocate for the individual employees.

Thank you. We do need to move on. We flipped a coin right before we started. Closing statements: first, Paul.

Paul Craney: Sure. Citizens United is a great decision because it empowers people, individuals and employers to have a voice in the political process. Question 2 specifically puts your freedom of speech at risk. It allows elected officials at the Statehouse to be the ones that draft restrictions on our speech.

And Jeff.

Jeff Clements: So for 200 years in this country, we had rights for everybody -- equal citizens, an ability to run for office, whether born in a log cabin or a mansion. That's what the American Revolution that started here in Massachusetts is all about. Citizens United is new and radical. What it says is that you have more rights if you have more money. You can buy politicians and buy the elections. That's not the American Revolution. Vote "yes" on Question 2 to create the citizen commission to advance a constitutional amendment to secure rights for all Americans to free speech, put voices of everybody into the political system, and we'll begin to be able to solve problems together again.

Take a look at the NEPR Massachusetts General Election Voter Guide 2018.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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