A new city initiative, earnestly written and widely circulated by a group of 80 volunteers, aims to eliminate the overwhelming influence of corporate spending on elections. In all future city races, Initiative 103 would reverse the Supreme Court decision that gave corporations the same election spending power as people. It would also ban corporate campaign contributions and prohibit corporate lobbying outside of public forums. But it doesn't stop there: I-103 would also grant new unalienable rights to neighborhood groups, salmon, and even whales.
There's just one problem: The initiative is so poorly written and blatantly unconstitutional that it "borders on ludicrous," says David Skover, a constitutional law professor at Seattle University Law School.
But Jeff Reifman, a former Microsoft employee and freelance writer who drafted the initiative, says, "We're doing the work the legislature should be doing." Reifman is now leading the charge to get the 20,629 valid signatures required to qualify the initiative for the November 2013 ballot. "The reason the legislature isn't changing [the laws] is because they're under the thumb of corporate money," he says.
Intellectually, everyone knows that corporations aren't people. They don't laugh, shit, or vote like people. You can't have sloppy, regrettable sex with General Electric after a night of heavy drinking. But thanks to a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission), corporations have the same rights as people when it comes to free speech and federal elections, which means they can outspend most people—the laughing, shitting, regrettable-sex-having sort of people—by dumping unlimited amounts of money into independent Super PACs to elect their favorite candidates to federal office, without reporting the sources of that money.
There's no denying Citizens United changed the political landscape for the worse: Independent campaign spending increased nationally by a staggering 234 percent between March 2008 and March 2012, according to the campaign finance tracking website Open Secrets. In response, congressional Democrats in July proposed drafting a constitutional amendment to curtail unlimited election spending—but that process would likely take years.
Initiative 103 seeks to provide a stopgap. In doing so, its provisions run the gamut.
Some provisions concern elections, so we'll begin with those: Besides banning any corporation from making a contribution to influence an election, it would prohibit corporate lobbying outside of public forums like City Hall hearings. Reifman explains that his measure would kill backroom deals like Chris Hansen's controversial Sodo arena. "He would've had to propose his idea in public from the very beginning," Reifman says. I-103 would also prevent Tim Eyman from capitalizing on his perennially terrible corporate-funded initiatives—like his initiative this year funded by oil giants BP and ConocoPhillips.
But I-103 makes no distinction between private and nonprofit corporations, which means that it would muzzle political nonprofits like the ACLU just as effectively as it would oil companies. "The ACLU would be forbidden to lobby or access legislators under this act," Skover says.
Then the measure veers into the deep end.
Really, it says: "Resident orcas and native salmon possess inalienable rights to exist and flourish." New rights for urban whales!
It would also prohibit former elected officials from seeking jobs in any Seattle-based corporation—such as Starbucks, RealNetworks, or Nordstrom—for three years after office. "That clearly violates constitutional protections for employees under any minimal rationality test," Skover explains.
It gets weirder from there. For instance, I-103 grants "neighborhood majorities" the right to reject all zoning changes for construction near their homes. When pressed for details, Reifman couldn't explain how these neighborhood groups would set new zoning laws. "We don't write the rules," he said without irony. "This is one of the things the council would have to prescribe."
But local land-use lawyer Chuck Wolfe says it's rubbish: "This conflicts with several principles of land-use law, including the final zoning authority vested in the Seattle City Council by the state. It's simply wacky."
Needless to say, if this measure were to pass, it would almost certainly be challenged in court (by developers who don't want to be bound by neighborhood groups, for instance). Skover says the measure "contradicts existing Supreme Court interpretations of the First and 14th Amendments and exposes the city to potential liability."
That doesn't worry Reifman.
"We're pretty confident that we'd survive a state suit," he says. "And we have a severability clause, which means that if one part were found invalid, the rest of the initiative would hold."
Reifman seems oblivious to the larger problem with his initiative—larger than the simple fact that it seems destined to fail. That is, I-103 is so poorly and broadly written that it mocks a serious problem in our country with the power of corporations over elections—and the serious discussion surrounding it—while wasting the time and enthusiasm of activists. That's a shame.