Local grassroots effort seeks to stop influence of money in politics

Posted February 24, 2016

While Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and other presidential candidates duke it out over campaign finance reform, a few members of the River Falls community are taking the issue of monetary influence on political elections into their own hands.

Ann Leake and about five other community members founded their organization, Western Wisconsin United to Amend (WWUTA), last winter after hearing a speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Society talk about the issue and implications surrounding the much-debated U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit political group.

Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, now referred to as simply “Citizens United,” is a 2010 Supreme Court decision that essentially allows corporations, lobbyists and interest groups to donate unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns of their choosing. Political pundits argue that these donations often lead to the donors being favored in policy making after the candidate they donated to is elected. The amount of money given is often kept undisclosed to the public as well, especially if donated to a Super PAC (political action committee), which are “unaffiliated” committees that raise funds and spend money on political candidates, the largest percentage of which is typically spent on advertising.

According to a 2013 analysis of studies published in the liberal Mother Jones magazine, in the last presidential election cycle 28 percent of all disclosed donations, around $1.68 billion, came from just over 31,000 of the nation’s 323 million citizens. In the 2014 midterm elections, 94 percent of biggest spenders in the U.S. House of Representatives won their elections, and 82 percent of the biggest U.S. Senate race spenders won, too. These campaigns were almost all funded by organizations like Citizens United.

Leake said she decided that citizens must do something to stop what she calls corruption of the system.

“The talk from this woman was so disgusting about the effect of big money in politics and the corruption, and the fact that the common person is losing his or her voice in the political process,” Leake said. “It’s no longer a representative democracy, it’s a plutocracy.”

Leake has been dismayed at the campaign finance laws since looking into them more.

“It takes away the voice of people who don’t have $5 million to donate to a candidate. We know that money buys influence and corruption… and I no longer think we’re dealing with a level playing field,” she said.

The goal of WWUTA and the national United to Amend organization is to amend the Constitution with language stating, “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only,” according to United to Amend’s website.

The main tactic being used to start this process is by passing resolutions and referendums in cities nationwide. So far, more than 660 municipalities and governments have done so, 60 of them in Wisconsin. Leake and other members from WWUTA presented their request for a resolution to the River Falls City Council last fall, but Leake said members of the council were reticent to approve such a strongly worded document.

A citywide referendum is the route WWUTA will take instead. The organization will be starting a petition campaign in April, but its needs more than 800 signatures to get the question put on the November ballot.

Leake is hopeful about what the results of the referendum will be, though. Of the 35 towns and cities across Wisconsin that have passed referendums for such a resolution, most have received between 68 percent to 84 percent approval from voters. Especially with the outreach WWUTA is planning to do while gathering petition support, education on the Citizens United ruling will help sway voter opinions on the issue, Leake said.

“We know that when presented with the issue, the people in River Falls will support it,” she said.

While representatives from the Republican Party in western Wisconsin declined interviews, Neil Kraus, a political science professor at UWRF, said that it is typical of conservative lawmakers to oppose the repeal of Citizens United, simply because they have statistically been on the receiving end of large donations from private groups like Citizens United more than other political parties represented in government.

“It does divide more or less down party lines, and Republicans have been much bigger beneficiaries of this system,” Kraus said. “Democrats have their Super PACs, too, but when you look at the amount of money raised by these outside groups supporting Republicans and then look at the other side, it’s a lot more on the Republican side. I think that’s the most obvious reasoning.”

He did concede that the ruling has had large effects on the political process, however, but said that a constitutional amendment would be very hard to achieve. With the death of the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia this month, though, it’s no longer out of the question, Kraus added.

“Now we’re probably going to have a Supreme Court appointment before the end of the year,” Kraus said. “There are two ways to get rid of Citizens United: one, to amend the Constitution, which is almost impossible, and two is to overturn it. I don’t want to be too optimistic, but I think that’s looking a lot more plausible.”

WWUTA is excited to start working on the issue more aggressively, Leake said. While it will be a lot of work, she is looking forward to educating the public about the issue during the petitioning campaign, and encourages UWRF students to get involved with the movement, too. In the end, she said, young people like the students at UWRF will be most affected by what’s happening in politics.

“I’m just hoping that people will get fed up, and like I said, take back our government, or we’re not going to be a democracy anymore,” Leake said. “We’re looking at a country that’s going to be run in a very different way than our founding fathers envisioned it.”