Friday, June 17, 2005

We the (Rich) People

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's long-expected call for a special election this fall is expected to carry a hefty price tag - $200 million, according to his top fundraiser, Marty Wilson. Already, supporters and opponents of the eight initiatives expected to appear on the November ballot have formed massive campaign warchests to spend on a barrage of ads almost guaranteed to turn off the voters of California when they turn on their tv sets and radios.

Do the interests who paid to qualify these initiatives and that will pay for the ads supporting and opposing the initiatives represent the full spectrum of Californians' opinion? No chance thay do, but their access to money grants these interests a voice where the rest of us have none.

The initiative process is the public's ultimate check on government, allowing citizens to demand changes when entrenched politicians refuse to enact the public will. You may ask yourself, why is it that wealthy interests can use their riches to corrupt this important process?

Of little surprise to regular readers of these Posts, the answer is the 1976 Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo, which basically said that money can only corrupt people, not the democratic process. Later cases applied Buckley to preclude limits on spending and contributions in ballot initiative campaigns.

These ill-reasoned cases have helped foster the current environment, in which money, not policy, drives the outcomes of ballot initiatives. $200 million? A drop in the bucket compared to future initiative campaigns.

But, for those who think that direct democracy is about providing a platform for the entire populace to express and debate their opinions, there is some hope short of passing a constituional amendment. A new article by law professor Rick Hasen, who also writes an election law blog, challenges the notion that spending or contribution limits on ballot campaigns are unconstitutional.

Who knows whether courts will find Hasen's arguments persuasive, but it is encouraging to see more people raising their voices against the orthodoxy and patrician illogic of the current system. Wealthy interests continue to act like democracy in America is theirs to purchase - they are wrong. While the courts may continue to resist popular efforts to restore the people's initiative process to its rightful owners, their ability to do so may not withstand the rising chorus of folks who are mad as hell and just want their democracy back.

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