On Nov. 1, 2011, municipalities across Colorado will conduct elections. Voters in those cities and towns will be picking mayors and members of their city councils. They will decide on tax questions and other issues concerning how their cities will operate.
And then there is Boulder.
Boulder voters will be choosing five city council members this election day. They will also vote on a question about whether a corporation is a person. Inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, which determined that federal law restricting corporations from making independent expenditures to influence elections violated First Amendment free speech protections, some outraged Boulder residents asked the City Council to place the “corporations aren’t people” declaration on November’s ballot. By a vote of 6-3, the council obliged them.
Boulder’s vote will have absolutely no impact on the debate over whether corporate and trade union money should be able to be used and in what amounts to influence elections. Further, in dozens of places in Colorado law, the definition of “person” does include corporations, and while a ballot measure in Boulder won’t change that, it shows that the law of unintended consequences can rear its head when ill-advised measures like this one are proposed or adopted.
And when it’s all said and done, the one indisputable fact about campaign finance reform efforts is that regardless of efforts to limit the influence of outside money, people who want to put money into elections find ways to do so. And, ironically, the more creative people get in making contributions, the harder it is to track from where those moneys come. If we focus on finding ways for contributions to be disclosed instead of restricted, we are more likely to be successful. Furthermore, information the public gets about who is trying to influence the outcomes of elections and knowing if we are likely to agree or disagree with their points of view provide valuable information to help voters decide how to cast their ballots.
It’s just kind of silly for Boulder voters to weigh in on whether a corporation is or isn’t a person when it comes to whether and how corporations should be able to provide funds for elections. But regardless of the outcome of the Boulder vote, we should focus our efforts on making elections and the people who try to influence them transparent instead of continuing futile efforts to restrict spending altogether.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.