This year’s most intriguing ballot referendum: Montana’s corporate personhood initiative

Montana is among the deepest of red states. Mitt Romney currently enjoys a comfortable lead there, and Nate Silver estimates that he has a 98% probability of winning the state. Yet at the same time, Montanans are poised to support a ballot initiative that is about as far away from Mitt Romney-style conservatism as you can get. The measure, known as I-66, declares that corporations are not human beings and bans corporate money in politics. It’s populism at its most robust, and it is being supported by the Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer; the Republican lieutenant governor, John Bohlinger, and various citizens’ groups; its opponents include various Republican lawmakers and the American Tradition Partnership, a right-wing advocacy group. The one poll I was able to find about the measure showed it leading by a whopping 29 points: 53% in favor, 24% opposed. It looks like a shoe-in to pass.

There are however, a few wrinkles. The initiative is has been described as “nonbinding;” it is simply a policy statement that would direct the behavior of Montana’s congressional delegation. Moreover, according to constitutional law experts, it wouldn’t be enforceable, because it conflicts with federal law.

So why, then, could I-66 be important? First, some background: earlier this year, the Supreme Court reversed Montana’s 100-year old law, the visionary Corrupt Practices Act, which banned political contributions by corporations. That case followed on the heels of a landmark Supreme Court ruling, the infamous Citizens United decision, which held that corporations had a First Amendment right to spend unlimited corporate money in elections. By opening the floodgates of corporate funding and essentially giving our elected officials license to sell themselves to the highest bidder, Citizens United poses a grave threat to our democracy. Ordinary people need to take their country back from the one percenters and corporate oligarchs, and I-66 gives them a weapon in the fight.

Supporters believe that I-66, if passed, could, in Governor Brian Schweitzer’s words, “start a prairie fire” that spreads across the nation. They say it could be the first step in mounting a test case to challenge Citizens United, or perhaps in building a movement to pass “an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolishes the Citizen’s United decision.”.

Governor Schweitzer points out that

It was Montana in 1912 that banned corporate money from our elections. We don’t mind leading and we believe it has to start somewhere. This business of allowing corporations to bribe their way into government has got to stop. [Snip] Once Americans understand that’s what’s going on here they’ll stand up, they’ll stand with Montana.

It will be fascinating to see what happens with this.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee