My mother and father always voted in every election. They said voting was how citizens of a democracy participate in their government. Not only was it a duty, but they believed it was a privilege in a country where its citizens ultimately rule.
In my home during these same times there came frequent examples of what it meant to live in a country where the individual citizen had no voice. My grandmother, my father's mother, lived in Germany where the Nazi party under Hitler ruled with fear and terror. My grandmother's letters were opened by censors and resealed with a swastika stamp on the seal. Those letters were a constant reminder of the freedom that was ours to choose our leaders.
As soon as I was old enough I registered to vote. Since that day I have considered it my duty as a citizen of the United States to vote in every election. I have done so with a deep sense of patriotism.
I have, however, a growing uneasiness about our democratic process. Our government seems less and less responsive to the will of the voters. Legislation dealing with issues that major polls indicate have the overwhelming support of the American people languishes in Congress. When such legislation finally passes it has been watered down with exceptions and weak provisions.
As a case in point, consider the health care bill. Almost every poll indicated that a majority of voters were in favor of a public option. Nevertheless, early in the debate the option ran into strong opposition from representatives and senators of both political parties. The public option was dropped from the bill that was eventually passed. What happened? Money and lobbyists from insurance and drug companies flooded Congress and overwhelmed the voice of the voters.
Leroy McNeely, a health care advocate with the Boston-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group, wrote, "The sheer quantity of money that sloshed around Washington is drowning out the voices of citizens and the groups that speak for them."
In the April-to-June quarter of 2009, as the health care bill was being debated, health care firms and lobbyists spent money at the rate of $1.4 million a day. In this quarter, for instance, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association spent $2.8 million and the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline spent $2.3 million to influence the final outcome of the bill.
The power of money speaks louder than the voice of the voters. How can I as a single voter with very limited financial resources compete with corporate millions? How is it that corporations now drown out the votes of citizens in our country?
One answer is to be found in an 1886 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. In that decision the Court declared that a corporation is a "person" with the same rights granted to individuals under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution soon after the Civil War to protect the rights of recently freed slaves. Its intent had nothing to do with corporations, but in an extreme reach of "activism" the Court determined that corporations, which are not alive as are breathing, thinking persons, have the same rights as such persons.
In January of this year the Supreme Court by a vote of 5-4 enlarged the 1886 decision. The First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech now applies to corporations just as it does to individuals. Therefore there can be only very narrow limits on corporate cash to support or oppose political candidates.
This is a serious issue that affects all voters, liberal and conservative, left and right. It asks the question: Is our country to be as Lincoln declared, "of the people, for the people, by the people" or, on the other hand, is our country to be of, for, and by corporations?
If it is the latter direction toward which our country is moving, our precious freedoms of self rule and free speech are in grave danger and our democracy itself is threatened.