People For the American Way

Expanding Democracy by Amending the Constitution to Get Money Out of Politics

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Ninety-five years ago today, we added an amendment to the U.S. Constitution saying that women have a right to vote in our elections. While today women's suffrage seems like a no-brainer to everyone — except maybe Ann Coulter — it was not an inevitability that simply fell into place. Women were not "given" the right to vote. It was an amendment that women fought for, tooth and nail, for more than 70 years in every state across the country

In a 2010 piece about the suffrage movement, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote that "behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time." It was a painstaking process of organizing, state by state, that ultimately led to the 19th Amendment.

It's not a fast process to amend the Constitution — just ask Susan B. Anthony, who organized for decades and didn't live to see the passage of the women's suffrage amendment. It shouldn't be easy to change our country's guiding document. But we have a history of passing amendments, when necessary, to make our democracy more inclusive, and often to correct serious harm done by the Supreme Court. The women's suffrage amendment overturned a 1875 decision that held women didn't have a right to vote. In all, seven of the 17 constitutional amendments adopted since the Bill of Rights have reversed damaging Supreme Court decisions that threatened popular democracy.

Today we're facing another serious threat to our democracy: Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United. 

In the wake of decisions allowing unlimited spending to influence elections, money has inundated our political system like never before. 2014 was the most expensive midterm in history, but with fewer donors than in past elections. The 2016 presidential election is already on its way toward eclipsing all previous records. We're seeing more and more money from fewer and fewer donors, and it's taking a real toll on the functioning of our system.

There is a nationwide movement pushing for a constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and take our political process back from the tremendous influence of big corporations and moneyed interests. Like the women's suffrage movement, it's a slow process of building support city by city, state by state, one conversation at a time. So far 16 states and 650 cities and towns have gone on record in support of an amendment, and momentum continues to build

The campaign for an amendment, like the Democracy For All amendment being considered in Congress, is grounded in simple ideas: we should be able to set reasonable limits on money in elections. The size of your wallet shouldn't determine the strength of your voice. Our elected officials should be paying attention to the needs and priorities of everyday Americans rather than following a political agenda set by wealthy special interests.

On Women's Equality Day we celebrate the expansion of political rights almost a century ago. It was an expansion based on the recognition that our political system is for all of us. But as the foundation of representative democracy is threatened by an overwhelming influx of money in elections — to the point where all of us can no longer be heard in our democracy — we are called to amend the Constitution again.