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A constitutional amendment to restore campaign finance laws voided by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision topped the wish list of panelists at a forum Thursday on election reform hosted by freshman Congressman Jared Huffman.
"Amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United may well be one of the most important issues of our time," Huffman, D-San Rafael, said at the forum at Dominican University in San Rafael. He encouraged attendees in the meantime, however, to look for additional approaches for making elections fairer and voting more accessible.
"We can also do some other important things that will make a difference within the system," Huffman said. "It's not just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
In its ruling on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission issued in January 2010, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.
Huffman was joined on the panel by Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., chairman of the House of Representative's Task Force on Election Reform. Larson has held similar forums on election reform in Florida, Connecticut and Nevada and has plans to travel to other states to discuss the topic in coming months.
"We want to engage the citizens around this country and make sure they understand that in order to take back their democracy that a constitutional amendment is perhaps the path to go," Larson said.
The panel also included Phillip Ung of Common Cause; Emily Rusch of CALPIRG; LeeAnn Pelham, an election reform consultant; Dave McCuan, a professor of political science at Sonoma State University; and Susan Rounder of the Marin County League of Women Voters. More than 100 people turned out for the event at Dominican's Guzman Lecture Hall.
To illustrate why she believes election reform is necessary, Rusch shared some statistics from the 2012 presidential race. She said 32 large political action committees each contributed an average of $210 million to the candidates, and those contributions exceeded all the donations President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney received from 3.7 million small donors.
Rusch said 12 percent of that PAC money came from corporations; but she said it is impossible to trace where 58 percent of the outside money spent on ads in the presidential race came from.
"We believe that the Constitution does need to be amended," Rusch said. "Money should not be equated with free speech in this country, and corporations should not be treated like people under the law."
Speaking about efforts to enact campaign finance reform in California, Ung said, "We have Democrats who are very much in favor of stronger regulations to solve the problem, and we have some Republicans who believe that contribution limits have caused the expansion of independent expenditures — so the way to fix money in politics is to allow money to flow freely. Common Cause disagrees with that."
McCuan, however, warned that much attention must be paid to the "unintended consequences of what regulation doesn't do."
"Holding money back in politics," McCuan said, "is like creating a cyclone fence to hold back the Pacific Ocean."
He said the Internet could be utilized immediately to give average voters more information about how money is influencing politicians representing their communities — simply by creating one website with links to government campaign finance data and related political sites.
Pelham also emphasized the need to improve government websites that post campaign finance information. Huffman said he pursued such a project when he was an assemblyman; but the idea stalled after it was estimated to cost $1 million. Ung said that since then a new law taxing lobbyists has raised about $500,000 for such efforts.
Huffman concluded the forum by urging attendees to "keep pushing new ideas; keep trying new models."
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