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Money Talks


Exactly 20 years ago, then-Congressman Michael Huffington tried to wrest a U.S. Senate seat from Dianne Feinstein by spending $29 million, most of it from his own piggy bank. With the $12 million that Feinstein spent, it was the most expensive race in U.S. Senate history. He lost the election.

How charming those days were. We don't have a U.S. Senate race this time around. But there is an election next week and money on the few state propositions on it make the Feinstein-Huffington race seem like a cheap night on the town.

I was going to write this column about how confusing our local ballot initiatives become if you read all the letters to the editor on them. (Will Measure P really make it impossible to plant marijuana seedlings or vaccinate your dogs?).

But I made the mistake of looking at my ballot. That got me looking at the state propositions. And that got me wondering how much money was raised for and against each of them. And now I have campaign finance stress.

This happens to me every election season.

I know that if you are old enough to vote, there is a 50-50 chance you won't. Statewide, half of all people eligible skip midterm elections. If you haven't cast your vote by now, you probably won't.

There is big, big money counting on you to do just that. The more people who sit out the election, the more effective the money that corporations spend trying to influence those who cast votes becomes. Even if you vote, there's a good chance you'll skip propositions you don't understand.

Consider Proposition 45. That's the one called, "Healthcare Insurance Rate Changes. Initiative Statute." The summary talks about the insurance commissioner and public notice and disclosure and whatnot. Because of the legalese, you might flip a coin on it.

And that's kind of scary, because just three insurance companies have spent a total of $48 million opposing it. That's a lot of mailers, TV ads and Internet pop ups. It could instead have paid for $48 million worth of health insurance claims they denied. Or $1,000 deductibles for every person who lives in Eureka and Arcata combined.

I'll bet the companies expect to make that much money ten-fold if they can keep themselves from having to go to our insurance commissioner before they can raise rates.

Meanwhile, a partnership of big insurers and big health service providers anted up more than $93 million to oppose Proposition 46. That's the one that starts off with drug testing of doctors and then lifts the amount you could get if you win a malpractice lawsuit. Three malpractice insurance companies, alone, tossed in $30 million.

The year of our last midterm election, the U.S. Supreme Court told us in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that we couldn't limit the amount of money corporations or organizations spend on political ads because the First Amendment doesn't discriminate against big business.

For a while now, all the propositions and referendums that show up on our California ballots have made our elections a confusing mess. When I lived in San Francisco, I remember ballots with almost 100 things to vote on, between candidates and measures. Confusion breeds inaction.

Elsewhere in the country, organizations are pushing state governments to pass laws that make it harder for people to vote. These laws limit the days and times polls can be open or require specific types of identification before someone can cast a ballot.

Over the past four years, two things have happened to fundamentally shape our political environment. The court gave big business free speech and big political interests have worked to restrict our ability to cast individual votes. The result is that, as it becomes more difficult to vote in much of the country, huge amounts of money are pouring in to tilt the votes that are cast. When your confusion or frustration or weariness gets you to not vote, you play into all that.

I'll tell you how I vote these days. I'm a child of Watergate. As anyone who has watched All the President's Men too many times will tell you, when in doubt follow the money.

When faced with conflicting door knob hangers and TV ads that all seem to make sense, when nice people you know all push contradictory pamphlets in your face and the titles of propositions don't seem to match the language in their summaries, follow the money.

I'm one tiny person. If big organizations spend big money to push ballot measures, I will oppose those measures. And if they spend tens of millions to oppose propositions, I will vote for those measures. The single vote and the combined power of single votes is the only power left to us as individuals in a political world controlled by money. Ten million voters can negate tens of millions of campaign dollars.

In 1994, Michael Huffington lost. In 2010, former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman spent more than $100 million of her own money in a bid for the governor's seat. She lost.

Californians seem to have a history of rejecting people who try to buy political offices. Let's send the same message to corporations who try to buy laws that favor their interests or buy their way out of regulation.

Check it out for yourself. Google Cal-Access. That takes you to the page on the California government website that gives you top-10 lists of contributors for each proposition.

The Supreme Court says that the First Amendment won't let us limit money in elections. We can't silence the ads. But we can make all that money ineffective. Like the money Huffington and Whitman spent, it could just end up down the drain.

If you don't know how to vote don't not vote. Vote. Just cast your vote against the corporate money.

— Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She also plans to vote against any unopposed candidate.

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