51 Vermont Towns to Vote on Overturning Citizens United on Town Meeting Day
Hinesburg will debate borrowing $275,000 to pay for septic system improvements at a mobile home park. Charlotte will discuss building a new sidewalk on the Ferry Road. Richmond voters will decide whether local police should use a military surplus Humvee acquired by the town's chief.
As usual, the agendas facing Vermonters this Town Meeting Day are long and eclectic.
But when they're done with all that, these three towns — and 48 others across Vermont — will take up a weightier question: Should the U.S. Constitution be amended to declare that corporations are not people, and to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission?
The resolutions challenging "corporate personhood" are part of a grassroots campaign aimed at blunting the influence of money in politics in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling. It's part of a three-prong attack on Citizens United that puts Vermont at the center of a growing national movement.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has introduced a constitutional amendment that would bar corporations from bankrolling political candidates and enshrine the right of legislatures to regulate campaign spending. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) is backing a companion version in the House. In the state legislature, Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) and 10 cosponsors have proposed a joint resolution urging Congress to amend the constitution to clarify that corporations are not people.
Organizers succeeded in putting the question on ballots and warnings in 51 cities and towns this year. A 'yes' vote will put a town on record urging state and federal lawmakers to back a constitutional amendment. The town of Thetford took up the resolution at its town meeting on Saturday and after 15 minutes of discussion approved it 147-3.
Tim Briglin, a financial manager in Thetford who helped get the resolution on the warning, wasn't surprised the vote was so lopsided.
"Not one person turned me down for getting a signature," he says. "I had people dropping off petitions at my house and calling me a week later. There's a lot support for it."
The full list of towns that will take up the resolution is: Albany, Barnet, Brattleboro, Bristol, Burlington, Calais, Charlotte, Chester, Chittenden, Craftsbury, East Montpelier, Fayston, Fletcher, Greensboro, Hardwick, Hinesburg, Jericho, Lincoln, Marlboro, Marshfield, Monkton, Montgomery, Montpelier, Moretown, Mount Holly, Norwich, Plainfield, Putney, Richmond, Ripton, Roxbury, Rutland City, Rutland Town, Sharon, Shrewsbury, South Burlington, Starksboro, Sudbury, Thetford, Tunbridge, Waitsfield, Walden, Warren, Waltham, Williamstown, Williston, Winooski, Windsor, Woodbury, Woodstock and Worcester.
After introducing her resolution last year, Lyons says she was contacted by a huge number of Vermonters who wanted to know how they could help. She organized a meeting and started the ball rolling for getting it on town meeting warnings, she says. Lyons says she'd be happy if half the towns approved the resolution but cautions, "I have no idea whether everyone who presents the issue at town meeting will effective at relating what exactly it means. I don't think it's an easy issue to describe on the floor."
National issues often creep onto town meeting agendas — Briglin notes that Thetford was the first town to call for impeaching Richard Nixon in 1974 — and inevitably critics say town meetings should stick to local issues. Lyons has heard that argument and counters that the corporate personhood resolution is "more relevant" to Vermonters than most national issues because "it could change our town meeting process. It will change local school board elections."
"Town meeting has always been rich with debate about a variety of issues," Lyson says, "not just dump trucks."
A recent poll from the new polling institute at Castleton State College found broad support among Vermonters for a constitutional amendment. Of the 800 people polled, 76 percent said they "somewhat" or "strongly" favor an amendment that would allow "government to put limits on the amounts that wealthy individuals and interest groups could spend on political campaigns." Fifteen percent said they somewhat or strongly oppose such an amendment, while 9 percent said they were not sure.
Drilling down into the numbers, the Democrats polled backed an amendment overwhelmingly: 86-10. Independents favored it by a margin of 78-15 and Republicans supported the idea by a margin of 57-23.
Vermont Republican Party chairman Jack Lindley says he's "pleased that Vermonters are taking time to express a view on the issue — that's what democracy is all about in Vermont." But he says corporate personhood is not a "burning issue" in Vermont compared to jobs and economic development. Lindley says amending the constitution is "a pretty heavy lift starting at the Vermont town meeting to get that done.
"I wish them well," he says, "but I wouldn't hold my breath."
Asked about the Castleton poll, Lindley downplays the results, saying, "It's all in how you ask the question. There's law and precedent and court rulings that make it difficult to take a simplistic question on a poll and make it stand up. The devil is in the details on that particular issue."
Bill Butler, a self-described "recovering Republican" who helped get the resolution on Jericho's town meeting agenda, points out that the language is actually stronger than Sanders' amendment. As written, the senator's amendment would only apply to corporations and not spending by labor unions and other special interest groups.
"We believe that Bernie's language is too corporate specific," says Butler, a jeweler with the Artisans Hand craft gallery in Montpelier. "We are talking about all special interest money — corporations, trade unions, trade associations, lobbyists and wealthy individuals. George Soros and the Koch Brothers."
Butler describes the resolution as "not so much an amendment as a direction, by the people, to begin a national discussion, with the end result being an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It's like a revolution and nobody dies — a revolution with a fountain pen."
Poster art by Kevin Ruelle of Ruelle Fine Art in Burlington