The completely counter-intuitive legal doctrine of corporate personhood is, of course, far more than simply one of the countless sources of jokes at the expense of Mitt RMoney (Romney).
It’s also the legal basis of a slew of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, most notably 2010’s Citizens United decision, that have exacerbated the disproportionate power large corporations wield over American politics, culture, law and governance.
And people are fighting back. Nationally, multiple efforts are under way to encourage a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and even to overturn Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad the 1886 Supreme Court decision that recognized corporations as persons for purposes of the 14th Amendment, starting the precedent chain that has led to the current conservative court rulings.
Locally, in Seattle, another effort is under way: an initiative effort to “end corporate rights” that would not only challenge corporate personhood but elevate the rights of actual human beings and, for the first time, also recognize the inherent rights of nature.
Initiative 103 is a measure that, according to its ballot title, “concerns local rights and restrictions on corporations to achieve those rights.” It would, among many other things, codify the right to fair elections, the right to clean government, the right to self-government, the right to a citizen-managed and accountable police force, the right to equal access to a free and open Internet, constitutional rights for workers in the workplace, rights for neighborhoods to approve zoning changes, and rights for nature to enable citizens to protect our shared environmental resources.
That’s a lot to chew off for one ballot measure — but it has precedent. I-103 builds upon similar initiatives in Spokane that lost narrowly in 2011 and previously in 2009, despite being heavily outspent by opponents.
And that’s the core of the issue for I-103’s backers: A political process already dominated by big money has even gotten more so in the wake of Citizens United.
Nationally, the support of a single billionaire has been enough to propel some of the Republican presidential campaigns far past the point where voter disinterest should have doomed them; the presumptive nominee, the aforementioned Romney, is himself worth more than many African countries.
Locally, the 2011 Seattle City Council elections saw all five incumbents reelected, in part due to the dominance of corporate contributions. All three statewide initiatives last year were primarily funded by single sources.
“We have the right to confront Citizens United,” said I-103 co-leader Jeff Reifman.
‘Taking the country back’
According to Reifman — a tech-industry veteran who has long campaigned against Microsoft’s dominance of our state government and its tax structure — corporations would not be able to spend money on elections (such as the $25 million or so Costco poured into last year’s liquor-privatization initiative) within Seattle city limits, a restriction that would resonate beyond Seattle due to the size of its media market.
Reifman and other I-103 backers believe that the measure would survive court challenges and might even create a template for an eventual legal challenge to Citizens United and similar corporate-friendly law.
But the first and primary purpose of mounting an effort like this — whether or not it is successful — is to start a political conversation on corporate power in our democratic system and to introduce the idea that communities and their residents have rights that are not being respected under our current, corporate-dominated political system.
If I-103 is successful, backers want the idea to spread.
“We want to inspire other communities to do this,” said Reifman, who calls I-103 part of a “grassroots effort to take the country back.”
But before that can happen, I-103 has to actually get on the ballot. Supporters have until Aug. 31 to get qualifying signatures (petitions are downloadable from the measure’s website at envisionseattle.org).
As previous initiative sponsors have discovered, getting sufficient qualifying signatures with an all-volunteer effort is difficult; and, if I-103 does make it to the November ballot, expect overwhelming opposition from the local political, economic and media leaders who benefit from the current system. That’s exactly what happened — twice — in Spokane.
Nonetheless, last fall, Spokane’s Proposition One, a similar effort, failed by only about 1,000 votes in a city of 200,000. That suggests I-103 has a good chance in what is, by every measure, a more politically progressive city. The question of whether the sensibilities of Seattle voters outweigh the interests of its economic elite is exactly what I-103 is all about.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM.