01/19/2013 09:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dear Mr. President: An Inaugural Theme -- MoneyOut/VotersIn

I know, it's late. But you often play with a speech the night before or enroute -- so how about your last Inaugural? Because it requires a thematic spine that endures, may I suggest one that emerges out of your books, talks, presidency: MoneyOut/VotersIn. Until we have a democracy-for-all, your progressive priorities may be stymied by the billionaires, super PACs and suppression that just tried to buy and steal our elections. They'll be back.

Since the 1880s we've seen how money shouts, and since the 1980s we've watched regressives seek to restrict the freedom to vote, culminating last year in the explosion of Super PAC spending and state voting rights restrictions. The efforts of the Adelsons, Kochs and Roves largely failed (at the federal level)...this time. But the economic elites will be back to attempt their hostile takeover of our democracy with even more money and sophistication.

You know that Mr. President. I was thrilled when you dressed-down those five conservative justices at your 2011 SOTU for disregarding logic, law and history to allow corporations to privatize our democracy... and thrilled when I saw your interview in Reddit in October where you said ""Even if [a Citizens United constitutional] amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change."...and thrilled when you ad libbed election night about long lines at the polls, "we have to fix that."

Now what?

Generations of traditional campaign finance groups have worked against a government-for-sale. And heroic voting rights groups have long sought to fulfill Dr. King's plea at the Washington Monument in 1957: ""Give us the ballot! Give us the ballot!" But rarely have these two communities worked together to talk about both sides of the coin of democracy. Until a citizen's voice doesn't depend on the size of her wallet, it will be hard to accomplish so much of what is urgent -- gun violence reduction, immigration reform, climate change legislation, and a living wage.

So today -- the third anniversary of Citizens United and the anniversary this weekend of Dr. King's birthday -- a large labor, public interest, voting rights, environmental and faith coalition is organizing thousands of people in 90 cities around the country for a three-part Democracy-for-All program: a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United; public funding of public elections; and guaranteed voting rights so potentially 50 million more Americans can vote before or on a National Holiday in November.

President Carter's only Inaugural was grounded in human rights -- and that's what many people fondly still remember him for. Both of President Clinton's Inaugurals talked about fixing our democracy. President Bush's second Inaugural also promoted human rights.

Were you to "demand democracy," it might not happen in the next year or session or decade -- much like it took Teddy Roosevelt's proposals for environmental repair and health care decades to accomplish, as you well know -- but a vision grounded in this "more perfect union" of less money and more voters is one that needs a clarion voice and special moment.

How about you and Monday?


First, reverse Citizens United. Senator John McCain is right when he calls the decision the worst in a century. How can "originalists" like Justices Scalia and Thomas ignore the historical reality that the Founders intended the First Amendment apply to actual human beings, not corporations, which never appear in the Constitution? How can big interests and their apologists hide behind the First Amendment when money is literally property, not speech?

But then, like segregationists who hid behind "property rights" and "states rights," today's powerbrokers pretend that they are merely the modern equivalent of silenced minorities. Wal-Mart is not Tom Paine or Fannie Lou Hamer.

But it's one thing for money to buy companies in a system of capitalism based on the private pursuit of profit -- but quite another for money to buy congressmen with trillions in shareholder wealth collected for commercial, not political, purposes.

To better make this argument, this afternoon MoneyOut/VotersIn will organize a "corporate personhood wedding" between Mr. Multinational Man -- call him Koch Inc. -- and a bride looking for a dowry. Here's her marriage vow: "If a corporation is a person, can I marry a rich one and make millions in secret, illegal contributions too?"

While the exact language of an amendment might vary, one version could simply state that money isn't speech and can, in the electoral context, be regulated like excessive decibels and pollution are by sound/place/manner laws and environmental rules.

There are currently 125 Members of Congress, 11 states and 350 cities and towns that have called for a Constitutional Amendment. Obviously no state resolution can force a constitutional conclusion, but together they can help create a climate for change the way hundreds of local referenda for a nuclear freeze in the early 1980s spurred nuclear arms reductions in later Reagan-Gorbachev summits.

Next, enact "Democracy Funding."
There are successful versions in New York City, Maine and Arizona. Essentially, either a critical mass of small donations generate a multiple of public matching funding (in New York City, donations from city voters of $175 or under are matched 6-1) or candidates can voluntarily opt into a system where, if they reach a minimum threshold of donors, they receive a fixed amount of public funds to run for office.

Compare the New York City system with matching "democracy funding" and the New York State system without it. Small donations (under $250) account for 55 percent of campaign funds raised in City races but only six percent of State races. Forget 1 percent vs. 99 percent. Given the ethic that you don't bite the hand that funds you, who is in charge when .5 percent of eligible voters comprise 100 percent of all campaign treasuries in NYS? That's why a Fair Elections Act creating publicly financed state elections is about to be seriously considered in Albany.

Yes, public funds are involved. But either we have a system of the private funding of public elections -- with the hundreds of billions in corporate welfare that result -- or we have the public funding for public elections just as we now pay for voting machines and personnel to administer election day. New York State has learned that two dollars a voter would pay for a program covering statewide races. Is not our democracy more valuable than one aircraft carrier?

Then there's Universal Voter Registration. Voter impersonation is essentially non-existent. Meanwhile, some state saw seven-hour lines for people exercising their right to vote. As used successfully in many Western European countries and as prominently advocated by the Brennan Center for Legal Justice at NYU, a system of universal registration based on various data bases, like Social Security at birth, could automatically enroll people at 18, creating some 50 million more voters.

Many states -- led by Oregon and Washington -- have shown that a mix of voting-by-mail, early voting, and same day registration can boost participation by 20 percent points or more. As part of a federal Voter Empowerment Act, it would be also ideal if Congress could create a National Democracy Day on a Saturday in November rather than a working day.

But the only way any or all of this can occur is for candidates to fear and hear from voters more than donors. That's precisely what happened right after the Watergate scandal, when Congress enacted strong new laws limiting spending and corruption. After the recent backlash to secret Super PACs and to voter suppression laws -- and your reelection -- now is another opportune time.

If not starting this Citizens United anniversary, MLK weekend and your last Inauguration, then when... and if not us, then who?

For more information about the Day of Action, go to MoneyOut-VotersIn.Org. Some of the material in this blog appeared previously in Nation.Com.