DANVILLE -- Montana and Colorado voters have done it. So have the cities of San Francisco, Richmond and Los Angeles.

So why shouldn't Californians statewide have their chance to vote on whether corporations should be able spend big money to sway elections? That was the question Proposition 49 aimed to answer.

"I believe it is a fundamental threat to the ideal of self-government and democracy and government for the people and by the people," said former California Secretary of State candidate Derek Cressman about the increasing influence of corporate money on elections, specifically in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. He spoke at an Aug. 28 meeting of the San Ramon Valley Democratic Club.

"There's a national consensus, really, geographically -- both red and blue -- that the voters want things to change," Cressman said, judging by polls and resolutions passed on the issue nationwide.

"And certainly it's an extraordinary situation that requires us to speak in different and extraordinary ways."

Authorized by the state Legislature via the passage of Senate Bill 1272, Prop. 49 would have let California voters weigh in on the issue of "corporate rights" under the U.S. Constitution and whether they supported a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United court ruling.

That controversial Supreme Court decision allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections through ads and other means. But the state Supreme Court recently ruled to remove Prop. 49 from the upcoming ballot.


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"The logic of the concurring opinion in the case is pretty offensive to me," Cressman said of state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu's Aug. 4 opinion, which asserts that the state Legislature may not have the authority to put the "advisory measure" on the ballot because it would require a constitutional amendment for the change to be made. The opinion also said Prop. 49 may have distracted voters from other important matters on the ballot, and that a poll on the issue might be more fitting.

"But there is no evidence from Montana and Colorado or San Francisco, Richmond or Los Angeles or any of the dozens of cities that have had questions like this on the ballot that even a single voter was confused or distracted ... just because they were asked whether or not we should overturn Citizens United," Cressman said.

But Prop. 49 may not be dead -- it could still show up on the presidential primary ballot in California in 2016, he said. The court decided to schedule a more thoughtful and deliberative process to more fully consider the challenge to Prop. 49 filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association against the state Legislature -- which will start on Nov. 10, Cressman explained.

"And maybe we can still find our voice on this issue," he said.

One way to register voter disapproval of the decision would be through the retention election, also on the Nov. 4 ballot, which comes up every 12 years for state Supreme Court and appellate justices. They simply allow California voters to mark "yes" or "no" on whether they wish to confirm and retain the Supreme Court justices, and Goodwin Liu and Kathryn Werdegar -- two of the justices responsible for the recent ruling -- are coming up for a vote, Cressman said. A third justice, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, will also be on the ballot but was only recently confirmed and was hence not responsible for the judgment.

But "hopefully, the California Supreme Court will realize the error of its ways ... and put it back on the ballot," Cressman said. If that doesn't happen, "it could be a fairly chilling thing," he said.

"We're facing a loss of self-government -- a government that is of the people, by the people and for the people. And it's not just due to the money and donors, it is due to the Supreme Court."

Other attempts by the executive and legislative branches to affect campaign finance reform law, first after the Watergate scandal and later when President George W. Bush signed the bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act banning soft money going to political parties, were later undone by Supreme Court rulings, he said.

"What has happened over the last 40 years is that state, federal and local governments have actually passed a lot of laws to respond to these problems," Cressman said. "And they've been thrown out ... overturned in highly controversial 4-5 rulings by the Supreme Court justices."

It's led to "the wholesale corruption of the political process so that it is no longer really in the public's interest," he said. "And this is a real threat to our ability to govern ourselves as citizens ... and we need to start looking at ways to push back."

For more information on Prop. 49, go to www.yesonca49.com.

Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/joycetsainews.

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