Ky. voices: Join movement to overturn Citizens United, corporate control of government

January 20, 2013 

One valuable scholarly study of the right to vote states "despite its pioneering role in promoting democratic values, the United States was one of the last countries in the developed world to attain universal suffrage."

The same study reminds us that it was the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. that brought "the abolition of almost all remaining restrictions on the right to vote."

On Monday, American citizens will see another anniversary of the unfortunate 2010 Supreme Court decision (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) bringing an unprecedented flood of money into our electoral process.

This year, the anniversary coincides with the national day honoring the civil rights movement's greatest leader.

We think the Supreme Court of 50 years ago was right to proclaim the democratic ideal of "one person, one vote" as a core constitutional value.

Yet a recent poll indicated that 84 percent agreed that "average Americans' voices are drowned out by corporate spending on politics."

We write as members of the local chapter of an emerging national movement called Move to Amend (www.movetoamend.org/ky-lexington).

We seek, as numerous other groups do, to reverse the Roberts court's decision which permitted corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence local, state and national elections.

The Herald-Leader was right to editorialize that the 5-4 decision "has the potential to put every elected body ... under corporate ownership... ."

Working for democracy includes trying to assure that all citizens have an equal chance for broadly shaping public policy. The notion that "money is speech" is a harmful doctrine giving unfair advantages to corporate and financial elites.

It is disturbing that Kentucky's U.S. senators refuse to see this. There is much work to be done to both guarantee the right to vote and to make our elections more responsive to public problems and citizens' issues.

The elite tidal wave of Big Money has engulfed both major political parties. The situation is dramatized by the way the justice system has bypassed criminal prosecutions in cases where big banks have been caught laundering a billions of drug money and terrorist organizations' money.

In the past two years, both Wachovia and HSBC have been shielded from prosecution, while our sprawling prison system incarcerates disproportionately the poor and minorities, especially young men who are imprisoned for minor nonviolent drug charges.

Several journalists have pointed out that the HSBC fine for money laundering is about four weeks' earnings given the bank's pre-tax profits of $21.9 billion last year. We do not believe top officials of the Department of Justice who claim that not prosecuting the bankers is for the common good rather than for their good.

Last year we saw a lot of the big money channeled into voter-suppression efforts. The photographs of long lines of voters trying to exercise their right in states such as Florida and Ohio were alarming. The Brennan Center for Justice has shown how voter-ID laws in several states are aimed mainly at poor, elderly and minority Americans while the voter suppression efforts were claiming to prevent voter fraud.

Less than 20 years ago, the right to vote seemed more secure when Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford joined Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone in getting passage of the Motor Voter registration bill.

Our best political analysts have had to work hard to track last year's hurricane of political spending by the super wealthy, super PACs and secret big money groups. But most Americans, hopefully remembering Rosa Parks, are not ready to be pushed to the back of the bus.

Justice Louis Brandeis, born of a Louisville family favoring the abolition of slavery, once wrote: "We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can't have both."

Citizen action today is needed if we are to have democracy and justice for all.

Herbert G. Reid is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. Richard Knittel is a Versailles businessman.

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