6/7/06 Update: Measure T passed by a 55 to 45 percent margin.
Next month voters in Humboldt County, California, will consider a ballot measure to ban election contributions by out-of-town corporations.
Supporters of the measure contend that large corporations exert undue influence on local political campaigns. In 1999, Wal-Mart initiated a ballot initiative to overturn portions of the city of Eureka’s zoning laws and spent $250,000 on the campaign. In 2003, Maxxam-owned Pacific Lumber put up $300,000 to fund a campaign to recall newly elected District Attorney Paul Gallegos after he filed fraud charges against the company.
“Large out-of-county corporations are corrupting the integrity of our local elections and undermining the confidence of citizens in our government,” said Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, who is managing the campaign for the measure, which is sponsored by the Humboldt Coalition for Community Rights and has won endorsement from numerous entities, including the local Democratic Party, the Central Labor Council, many unions, dozens of local businesses, and several elected officials.
Measure T, also known as the Ordinance to Protect Our Rights and Local Democracy, would bar all non-local corporations, unions, and other organizations from contributing to political candidates and ballot initiatives in Humboldt County.
Should it pass on June 6, the ordinance would be the first of its kind in the country and is likely to generate widespread interest, particularly in the many communities where corporate chains have spent heavily to alter local zoning laws to accommodate large-scale retail development.
Both supporters and opponents agree that it will likely face an immediate legal challenge. At issue is a 1978 Supreme Court ruling, First National Bank of Boston versus Bellotti, in which the court struck down a Massachusetts statute that prohibited corporations from spending money to influence ballot initiatives. Opponents of Measure T contend the ruling gives corporations the same constitutional right as individuals to influence campaigns and that right cannot be limited by a local ordinance.
(For an excellent survey of the legal terrain and a guide to citizen activism around this issue, we recommend Reclaim Democracy’s Resource Library on Corporations and Ballot Initiatives.)
But supporters note that the Supreme Court indicated that it would have considered arguments against corporate spending if there had been evidence showing that they were “supported by record or legislative findings that corporate advocacy threatened imminently to undermine democratic processes.” Massachusetts did not present such evidence.
That leaves an opening for the Supreme Court to revisit the question of whether citizens can limit corporate political influence, say supporters of Measure T. They constructed the ordinance language specifically to exploit this opening. The measure asks voters to make an explicit legislative finding that “corporate contributions in elections are imminently undermining our democratic processes, and are denigrating rather than protecting First Amendment interests.”
Both the Wal-Mart and Maxxam initiatives provide potent local examples of corporate influence. Although the companies lost in both cases, the campaigns were costly for ordinary citizens to counter.
Several legal scholars have issued opinions supporting the measure’s constitutionality. “When you have a relatively small democratic unit like Humboldt County being swamped by out-of-state corporate campaign contributions that simply cannot be matched by the local ordinary citizens, you have exactly the situation that the Supreme Court was seeking to draw an exception for,” said Peter Gabel, law professor at the New College of California School of Law.