Guest opinion: Stand against unlimited campaign spending, vote for I-166

This item originally appeared in: The Billings Gazette

Author

Verner Bertelsen

Montanans have a choice this election: Speak up before your voice is drowned out entirely by big corporations with limitless money to spend on campaigns.

This is your chance to stand with Montanans, not the out-of-state interests that seek to buy our elections.

On your ballot, you’ll see state initiative I-166. You should vote FOR it. A vote FOR I-166 shows that you still believe it’s people, not corporations, who should call the shots in our political system.

Amend U.S. Constitution

I-166 calls on our leaders to amend the U.S. Constitution and re-institute limits on political spending. It would assert that corporations aren’t people, they shouldn’t be granted the same rights as people, and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections.

I-166 is a chance to fight back against the bad Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and more recent decisions that threaten to undo Montana’s century-old laws against political corruption. It’s an initiative supported strongly by Montana Republicans and Democrats alike.

I am a lifelong Republican and I served as Montana secretary of state from 1988 to 1989. I joined Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, a Republican, in signing the petition to place I-166 on the November ballot.

Unless we stand up, our nation will become steeped in the same sort of corruption that infected our state back in the days of the infamous Copper Kings.

Montana long ago learned a hard lesson about big money in politics when miner William A. Clark came upon a massive copper vein in Butte and overnight became one of the wealthiest men in the world. If he needed political favors, Clark paid for them. In 1899, when Clark decided he wanted to be a U.S. senator, he simply gave each corruptible state legislator the equivalent of $250,000 today and “won” the “election.”

Montanans got fed up with the corruption and fought back, passing the Corrupt Practices Act in 1912 and later banning large individual donations.

Under our state protections, candidates for state offices must raise money in small increments of no more than a few hundred dollars from an individual donor per election. A state legislator, for example, can’t accept more than $160.

Preserve democracy

These laws have allowed Montana to preserve a rare and true form of democracy, where citizens have access to government and nobody can buy their way to the front of the line.

But now, thanks to Citizens United and a more recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Montana’s anti-corruption statute, our system is in jeopardy.

Just this month, a federal judge here in Montana struck down our limits on individual campaign contributions, immediately opening the floodgates for wealthy individuals to make unlimited contributions to local candidates they seek to influence. Fortunately, a circuit court put a stop to things, reinstating our limits for this election. But we may lose these protections for good if we don’t stand up now.

Corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech. CEOs of corporations may choose to personally contribute to political campaigns, but they shouldn’t be allowed to use shareholders’ money to do so.

If we don’t protect the fairness of our elections, and the voice of individuals, corruption will follow. We don’t need out-of-state interests using big money to curry favor with politicians by bankrolling their campaigns. There’s a real possibility that foreign interests could get in the game, too. We don’t need countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran or China trying to buy U.S. politicians.

Vote FOR I-166. Corporations are not people, and your voice still counts.