The State Capitol building in Sacramento.EXPAND
The State Capitol building in Sacramento.

Voter Cheat Sheet – Proposition 59 Aims to Get Big Money Out of Elections

Before Angelenos head to the polls on Nov. 8, we are breaking down the ballot into some quick reads to get you up to speed on what's up for a vote.        

Proposition 59

What’s at Stake: If approved, Proposition 59 would advise Congress to propose and California's Legislature to ratify a constitutional amendment overturning a deeply unpopular Supreme Court ruling known as “Citizens United,” which said corporations and labor unions have the First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums for or against political causes.

For some, the Citizens United ruling has become the poster child for everything that’s wrong in American politics. A 2015 Bloomberg poll found that 78 percent of respondents want the decision reversed, while appointing a Supreme Court justice to help overturn the ruling has been one of the biggest issues during the presidential campaign (along with border walls, evaporating emails, hidden taxes and grabbing women without consent).

Yet the controversy surrounding this measure is not really about Citizens United – it’s about the effect of Proposition 59.

What It Does: Approving Proposition 59 would send the message that Congress and the Legislature should do something about Citizens United. But even the most casual observer knows doing anything is often really hard for Congress, which has a difficult time even funding the government beyond a few months.

So amending the Constitution seems far-fetched, especially since there's nothing in the measure to penalize lawmakers if they don't listen to California’s demands.

And the Legislature has already had its say about the issue – its members already called for a constitutional convention to overturn Citizens United.

Proposition 59 is "preaching to the choir," the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial opposing the measure. The Times argued that tinkering with the First Amendment when simple legislation would do is not worth it, and "Amend the Constitution; details to follow" is not a message worth sending.

Hillary Clinton pledged to appoint a Supreme Court justice who opposes Citizens United, which should sufficiently shift the ideological balance — so Citizens United may be going soon anyway. That is, if Hillary wins.

So if Proposition 59 really won’t do anything, and Citizens United may be on its way out anyway, why is it on the ballot?

What Happens If It Passes: Supporters say approving Proposition 59 would send a strong message against a bad ruling. Opponents say it’s just a “feel-good” measure that clogs the ballot with a nonbinding measure at taxpayer expense. And somewhere between the two is Richard L. Hasen, an elections law expert and chancellor’s professor of law and political science at UC Irvine, who said it's likely just a way to “jack up the Democratic vote."

Hasen tells L.A. Weekly that Proposition 59 is “pure political theater," "100 percent symbolism" and "pure symbolism" – but said it’s still an important message to send.

“It’s stupid, and I support it,” Hasen says.

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