At the February meeting of the Door County County Board, supervisors will take up a resolution asking for a statewide referendum to overturn the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The resolution is the cap of a year-long effort by Dan Powers and Jim Black from the campaign finance reform group Door County – United to Amend.
Members of the Legislative Committee think Citizens United should be overturned. The question is how to best effectively communicate that to the state legislature.
“The point of this is to get to Joel Kitchens’ ears,” said committee chairwoman Susan Kohout. Rep. Kitchens has said in past listening sessions that he would probably vote for a statewide referendum if the issue came to the floor of the Assembly.
“If we all are in agreement we want it to succeed, the question is how does it have the best chance of succeeding?” said committee member Steve Sohns.
Committee members and Corporation Counsel Grant Thomas discussed the strength of a county resolution versus a countywide referendum in communicating their goal.
“If you have a resolution that is passed by all supervisors, does not that have more weight than an election where you might have a small percentage of the population show up?” Thomas questioned.
The county could choose to do both, and they may seek a countywide referendum on the November ballot. Powers gently pushed the committee toward a referendum, but noted that three of the nine Wisconsin counties that have showed support for the movement passed resolutions instead of holding referendums.
“This is something that people are angry about and want to have a say,” said Powers. “If the county passes the resolution, then it’s their opinion as opposed to the voters having a say.”
Thomas warned the committee about the need for neutrality should the county place the question to voters on the November ballot.
“By definition a referendum is supposed to be opinion-neutral,” said Thomas. “I just think it’s a bad idea to do a referendum if what you’re doing is making a political statement. You have to give them both sides of the information and ask a neutral question that doesn’t answer the question.”
The county may hire an outside firm to write a neutral question for a referendum should they choose to take that path after passing the resolution.
The primary reason for immediately pursuing a county board resolution was the ability to garner the support of the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA).
Every year the WCA receives resolutions passed by counties across the state and chooses which ones to throw their lobbying strength behind.
“I believe we have more power going through the WCA,” said committee member Roy Englebert.
Kohout said she is not confident the issue will be at the top of the WCA’s lobbying list when they choose their agenda at the annual meeting in September. Should the WCA not add the movement to its legislative agenda, the county may then go forward with a referendum at the November election.
Powers explained that 14 of 19 Door County municipalities have passed resolutions calling for a statewide referendum on the issue, accounting for approximately 74 percent of the county’s population. Powers plans to present to the towns of Union and Gardner in the next two months seeking their support as well.
What is Citizens United?
Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission was a 2010 case at the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision and other rulings have ruled spending money on political campaigns is exercising free speech, and manmade entities (corporations, unions, etc.) were given the same constitutional rights as individuals. The Citizens United decision made it illegal to limit money super PACs provide to political candidates.
As an example of what Door County residents may see on the November ballot, the referendum question posed to voters in St. Croix county was:
“Shall the County of St. Croix adopt the following resolution?
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that ‘We the People’ of the County of St Croix, Wisconsin, seek to reclaim democracy from the expansion of corporate personhood rights and the corrupting influence of unregulated political contributions and spending. We stand with communities across the country to support passage of an amendment to the United States Constitution stating:
- Only human beings are endowed with constitutional rights ─ not corporations, unions, nonprofits or other artificial entities, and
- Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting speech.”