When Montanans first employed the ballot initiative in 1912, all four of the measures they passed had a single aim: to curtail the political power of Amalgamated Copper, the state’s mining giant. So it’s no small irony that in 2004, a mining corporation is using the initiative process to try to reverse the expressed will of Montana citizens.
Executives at Colorado-based Canyon Resources Inc. are unhappy with
Montana voters’ 1998 decision to approve Initiative 137,
which banned spraying cyanide over ore piles to chemically extract
gold and silver. Because Canyon Resources is still eager to build a
new cyanide heap-leach mine on the Blackfoot River, northwest of
Helena, the company wants to overturn the ban.
Resources bankrolled more than 93 percent of the successful effort
to qualify Initiative 1472 for the November 2004 ballot, coming up
with almost $600,000 to pay for gathering the signatures and other
costs. If passed by voters, it would reverse the 1998 cyanide ban.
Canyon’s publicists say allowing new leach mines would create
jobs, while opponents fear — as they have for years —
that water supplies will be contaminated.
those points will rage in Montana, but all Americans should
consider a more fundamental issue: Why do we allow the
citizens’ initiative, which some say is democracy in its
purest form, to be used as a weapon to subvert democracy?
One could argue that we’ve tried and failed to stop the
practice. Montana and Massachusetts both passed laws that banned
corporate contributions to ballot initiatives. Federal courts later
struck them down, in the name of free speech.
"we tried, and the courts wouldn’t let us," is like blaming
the Supreme Court for racism prior to Brown v. Board of Education
in 1954. The more difficult truth is that we’ve failed to
protect the right to self-governance that many Americans died to
establish and defend.
When American colonists declared
independence from England in 1776, they also freed themselves from
control by the English corporations that dominated domestic
businesses and extracted wealth from the colonies. After fighting
to end this exploitation, our country's founders retained a healthy
fear of corporations’ power and limited them to strictly
business activities. States typically prohibited corporations from
spending any money to influence public opinion in our early days.
In the 1800s, corporations gradually dismantled those
barriers. By the century’s end, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
that corporations were persons entitled to constitutional rights,
thus creating "corporate personhood." Soon, corporations won
protections still denied to women and minorities. Even so, as
recently as the 1970s, corporations faced meaningful limits to
their political activity.
Then, in 1978, a former
corporate lawyer, Lewis Powell, wrote the Supreme Court’s
majority opinion in the case, First National Bank of Boston v.
Bellotti, which used the First Amendment to create a "right" for
corporations to influence ballot initiatives. The Bellotti decision
enabled corporations to wield immense power over local and state
policy issues in many communities nationwide.
affects Westerners especially, since every Western state in the
Lower 48 except New Mexico allows ballot initiatives, and all
permit referenda whereby state legislators may refer an issue to
In California this year, a consortium of
corporate interests placed an initiative on the ballot to
dramatically weaken the nation’s strongest consumer
protection law. In Arizona, real estate interests are attempting to
revoke public campaign financing for state elections, enacted by
popular vote just six years ago, to limit money’s power over
Wal-Mart repeatedly has used ballot
initiatives to overrule local policies that excluded the
company’s supercenters. The company lost a high-profile
battle in Inglewood, Calif., last spring when it tried to exempt
itself from all local planning and environmental regulations. But
what was an outrage one year sometimes becomes the law soon after.
In Montana, I expect voters will uphold the cyanide ban
despite Canyon Resources’ advertising campaign. But the
larger struggle — one to determine whether citizens or
corporations will control the future of our communities —
depends on citizens changing the rules of engagement and refusing
to allow our energy to be consumed in defensive struggles against
corporate assaults. Until we organize to return corporations to
business activities exclusively, democracy will be a fading ideal.