California’s Citizens United ballot measure: Who’s for it, who’s against it and what it could really do

A brief timeline of the history of Citizens United. 

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California voters will get to weigh in on the flood of money in politics this November through a ballot proposition that supporters say sends a strong message and detractors say does nothing much at all.

Proposition 59 is part of the uphill fight against the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United decision, which said money spent to influence voters that isn’t funneled through a candidate’s campaign is free speech, and the federal government cannot prohibit corporations and labor unions from spending money that way.

Since the decision, elections have become dramatically more expensive, with hundreds of millions being spent to influence elections at all levels by groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. 

What is the proposition really asking?

The measure asks Californians if they want their members of Congress to work on a constitutional amendment to overturn the landmark Supreme Court decision.

It would tell members of Congress to do everything in their power to reverse Citizens United, and to limit and regulate campaign spending. It would have no binding power.

Activists gather in the Assembly chambers in June 2014 to show their support for a bill placing a nonbinding advisory measure about Citizens United on the ballot. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press )

Where did the idea come from?

State Democrats have been trying to get the advisory measure in front of California voters since 2014.

It was approved by the California Legislature that year, but the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. challenged the original measure in court, saying it was outside the Legislature’s power to place propositions on the statewide ballot.

In January, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of lawmakers but also said they would have to start over with a new proposal.

State Sen. Benjamin Allen (D-Santa Monica) speaks on the Senate floor in Sacramento. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )

Who is behind it?

California Sen. Benjamin Allen (D-Santa Monica) saw the legislation through the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee, of which he is chairman. It passed the Senate 26-12 and the Assembly 51-26.

Several grassroots groups, including California Common Cause, Move to Amend and Money Out, Voters In, have pushed to get the measure on the ballot in California and in other states across the country. Organizers say they’re holding meetings, rallies and attending events like county fairs to educate people. There is a proposition campaign kickoff planned at Los Angeles City Hall on Sept. 18.

Campaign records show only $10,000 had been raised to drum up support for Proposition 59 before California billionaire Tom Steyer joined the effort in early September and gave $61,000. No one has spent money opposing it.

State Sen. Jeff Stone takes photographs during Gov. Jerry Brown's 2016 State of the State address. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )

Who opposes it and why?

Critics of the proposition say it clutters California’s ballot with a measure that isn't legally binding. That was the reason Gov. Jerry Brown gave for letting the bill that put the proposition on the ballot become law without his signature.

Brown wrote in a 2014 message that he disagrees with the Citizens United court decision “but we should not make it a habit to clutter our ballots with non-binding measures as citizens rightfully assume that their votes are meant to have legal effect.”

State Sen. Jeff Stone and Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, the two California lawmakers who oppose the measure in the Secretary of State’s voter guide, also emphasized that the measure doesn’t actually create or modify a law.

“Proposition 59 DOES NOTHING…The Legislature should focus on doing its job and stop putting meaningless measures on the ballot to ask Congress to limit free speech by overturning the Supreme Court. Corporations give money, Labor unions give money. People give money. They all do it to support candidates they like and oppose candidates they don’t,” they wrote.

Tim Ecker collects signatures outside a grocery store in Silver Lake in August. (Christina House / Christina House)
(Christina House / Christina House )

What happens if it passes?

Very little officially, but supporters are counting on influence eventually leading to action.

So far, 31 of the state’s 53 Congress members already back legislation that would begin the process to amend the Constitution. That legislation was referred to the House Judiciary Committee in February 2015 and hasn’t gotten a hearing. Lawmakers would have to start over with new legislation when Congress convenes in 2017.

Both of California’s senators also support similar legislation.

California Common Cause advocate Derek Cressman said with such an influential and large delegation (1 in 12 members of the U.S. House represent California), having those members on board could help move the issue forward.

“We have important members of Congress from California. I think California is better poised than any other state to really put this on the national agenda,” Cressman said.

Voters in Washington will also weigh the issue Nov. 8, as will people in cities and counties across the country that have put similar measures before voters. Colorado and Montana voters have already approved it.

Still, changing the Constitution is difficult. It first takes support from two-thirds of the House and the Senate. Then what they approve has to be approved by 38 states.

Of the 33 amendments Congress has proposed, 27 have been ratified by the states. The Constitution can also be changed through a constitutional convention, called by 38 states’ legislatures. But that has never happened.

Supporters of the proposition acknowledge change could take time.

“The process behind making change, whether it be legally or socially, or culturally, legislatively or otherwise is a long and arduous journey. This is a way for a voter to add their voice to the growing chorus of Americans who are fed up with the role of money in politics,” Allen said.

What if it passes and members of Congress just ignore it?

Legally, nothing happens if the 55 members of California’s congressional delegation disregard the proposition.

Courts have struck down prior attempts to add a punishment for lawmakers who ignore such voter instruction measures, which is why California’s activists didn’t include one.

But Cressman thinks members will have to explain why they ignored voters’ instruction come the next election.

“Voters will need to hold each individual member of Congress responsible,” Cressman said.

The grass-roots groups working for the proposition will meet with the California members to make sure they know “this is what your voters want and you need to be on record supporting us and your voters,” Move to Amend Director Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap said.

“We need to make clear to our elected officials at the state and federal level … that their constituents want them to make this happen,” she said.

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Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at



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