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Who's funding your candidate? It's hard to say, which is why we should amend the Constitution

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Idaho has just endured an overload of TV and print ads leading up to the primary election. Lots of money went into catching the attention of voters — billboards, yard signs, TV ads and those darn robocalls that interrupt you when you're watching a good game or just sitting down to dinner.

Analysts have yet to advise us as to whether or not campaign ads were significantly effective in this latest round of voting. We know that more women ran in the statewide races, and we know voters were more inclined this year to vote for women in Idaho and across the nation.

My guess is that Idaho voters didn't pay as much attention to positive ads promoting candidates as they usually do. Unfortunately negative ads always work, and quite a few ugly accusations were slung around.

Helpful or irritating, whichever fits your opinion, those campaign ads are expensive. Running for office in our democracy costs money. Not so much if you're running for a local office, with a smaller audience to capture. If a local candidate reaches out to friends and family, she or he can usually cover the costs. But ambitious candidates for Congress or statewide office are forced to spend an inordinate amount of energy asking, even begging, for donations of cash.

Campaign mailings are larger, showier and more expensive each year. And the public is not aware of where the money is coming from, as dollars are being spread around in big doses by donors who do not have to disclose their involvement.

It's because of all this that a strong, quiet revolution around campaign financing is brewing in the highways and byways of our country. It's being fueled by peace-loving, concerned citizens who say they want to "build a movement to amend the Constitution in ways that would defend democracy against corporate rule."

Under freedom of speech, the U.S. Supreme Court decision generally known as Citizens United has unleashed corporate and union dollars to be spent wherever they may land. I think most people will agree that treating corporations as if they have the rights of real live individuals is a stretch beyond reason. Before 2010, when the Citizens United decision was handed down, it would have been a stretch beyond our imaginations to give corporations the same freedom of speech that individual citizens have — or to equate money with speech as the Citizens United decision did.

Idaho, like most states, has a good set of campaign finance regulations; we call them "sunshine laws." But after the Citizens United decision, the sun doesn't shine on all the contributions a candidate may receive.

Move to Amend is the name of a major organization seeking to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling that corporations have the same rights as individual people. Move to Amend seeks the passage of a 28th constitutional amendment to do away with corporate constitutional rights and to "make clear that money is not speech."

The fiction that corporations have the same rights as individual citizens does not make sense to the ordinary American citizen. Move to Amend's brochure asks, "How can we have rule by the people when corporations have so many rights and powers?"

In dissent of Citizens United, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no thought, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."

Jane Mayer, writer for The New Yorker magazine, authored an eye-opening book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, which exposes the proliferation of Super PACs. Super PACs are extremely well-funded political action committees, formed to fund expenditures independent of candidates and parties, whose origin does not have to be reported.

Dark Money tells the story of how and where corporate contributions are finding their way to the election coffers of U.S. senators and Congress members, along with state officials and legislators.

Let me simplify the issue:

1) It's clear that campaigns cost too much money. The cost barrier scares off individuals who may be interested in running for public office.

2) Funding with public money is one method of countering the charge that only moneyed people can participate in the political game, or that candidates are beholden to donors who back them. After Watergate, a new system for financing presidential elections with public dollars was set up, but collapsed in the 2012 presidential campaign when candidates angled around it.

3) For our democracy to continue to represent "We the People," I believe it is necessary to discard the Supreme Court's interpretation of Citizens United. I'm with Move to Amend — it's time to support a 28th amendment to the Constitution to make clear that corporations are not people and that money is not speech. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined "Dark Money, Free Speech"

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