A coalition of voting-rights activists came to Wichita City Hall Tuesday asking the council to support a constitutional amendment to push corporate money out of politics.
About 30 residents — part of a new group called “We the People of Kansas” – stood up in the meeting to ask the council to pass a resolution supporting a proposed amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision.
In that 2010 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same free-speech rights as individual citizens, and that they could spend unlimited funds from company coffers to support favored candidates for office as long as they don’t directly coordinate with the campaigns.
The decision has touched off an unprecedented influx of campaign spending by billionaires and business executives, whose identities are often hidden behind previously unknown political entities.
Jane Byrnes, a dietitian who spoke for We the People at the council meeting, said 280 cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have passed resolutions supporting action to overturn Citizens United.
The cities’ actions, including anything Wichita might do, will have no direct or immediate bearing on changing the Supreme Court decision, but are a symbolic show of opposition to its provisions. Amending the federal Constitution would require two-thirds support in both houses of Congress and ratification by 38 states.
The local coalition opposing Citizens United includes representatives from groups such as the League of Women Voters, Occupy Wichita and Public Citizen, the consumer group founded by Ralph Nader. On Flag Day, June 14, the group brought together about 150 local residents for an informational meeting on Citizens United and its impact, Byrnes said.
“We’re concerned about the intrusion, corruption, of big money from unknown, out-of-area foreign donors,” Byrnes said.
“We in Kansas are currently very vigilant about voter fraud — who can vote and who can’t. But unknown entities and folks who cannot vote in our elections can purchase our elections when their money equals speech. Isn’t that the biggest election fraud of all?”
Byrnes said the group is nonpartisan and hopes to gain support across the political spectrum.
“If it appears partisan, that’s due to powerful (national) messaging machines,” she said. “Citizens all get it.”
She said the Citizens United decision threatens Wichita’s campaign finance code, which bans corporate money and sets limits on individual contributions in city races.
“Isn’t that ideal?” Byrnes said. “But we assume that it’s only a matter of time until the city of Wichita campaign finance limits are also — like the state of Montana’s were last month — overturned.”
The group appeared to have the support of at least one council member, Janet Miller.
“If no one has any objections, I’m willing to just chat briefly with each of my fellow council members and find out if there’s interest in pursuing this resolution,” she said.
Members of We the People Kansas think they’re in for a slog convincing a majority of the council to support their resolution.
“I think we’re reaching a tipping point, but I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Steff Roberts, a social worker. “We’ve still got some work to do.”
But she said Miller’s support gave the group hope and a starting point at City Hall.
“I’m very pleased Janet took a stand like she did,” Roberts said. “It shows she has the courage to stand up for what is right and protect our democracy.”