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Constitutional issue on ballot
Green County United to Amend Co-Chair Jeanette Kelty and member Bill Holland, both of Monroe, along with Hollands dog Buddy, stand by Hollands truck March 21. The message displays a sign saying Vote yes to take back democracy from big money in an effort to raise awareness of a referendum on the upcoming April ballot asking voters whether corporations should be given the same constitutional rights as human beings. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - A countywide referendum, which was passed by only one vote in the Green County Board of Supervisors December meeting, will appear on the ballot April 3 as part of a national, nonpartisan movement.

The group Green County United to Amend is part of a network of United to Amend volunteers looking to put an amendment in the U.S. Constitution through a method by which voters decide the legislation rather than lawmakers. Jeanette Kelty, Monroe, is a co-chair of Green County United to Amend. She and member Bill Holland are part of the effort to supersede the decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2010 case Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.

"This is just about giving the citizens a voice," Holland said. "Why wouldn't we want to give the citizens a voice?"

A total of 19 states have passed legislation calling for an amendment this way, and 110 government bodies in Wisconsin have done so as well, according the Wisconsin United to Amend website.

In the Citizens United case, the political action committee found favor as the Supreme Court struck down a federal law, commonly referred to as McCain-Feingold because of the legislators who authored it, that did not allow corporations and unions to contribute money to campaigns. The assertion that donations are free speech and corporations have inalienable rights afforded to humans through the Constitution because of monetary contributions did not sit well for people like Kelty, her fellow co-chair Harry Pulliam or members like Holland.

"I believe that there's enough logically thinking, intelligent people in this county," Kelty said. "I think most anybody you talk to about our Congress at this point, and you ask 'What do you think is the problem?' everybody is like, 'Well they're all bought off.' ... Why not work with something to see that change, you know?"

As a grassroots organization, the Green County group did not start with a countywide ballot. It began at the municipal level.

In 2016, Kelty managed to convince the Monroe Common Council that a measure should be on the April ballot that year. It was also a question posed to voters in Brodhead, Clarno and York; all passed, some by more than 1,000 votes. In the November 2016 election, Cadiz, Decatur, Mt. Pleasant, Monticello and the village and town of New Glarus followed.

Two Wisconsin counties will consider the amendment April 3: St. Croix and Green. La Crosse, Marshfield, Sun Prairie, Rice Lake, McFarland, Wittenberg and Sand Creek will also vote on the measure.

Now the question on the ballot asks that voters say yes or no to the idea that "only human beings - not corporations, unions, nonprofits or other legal entities - are endowed with constitutional rights," and that "money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech."

Kelty and Holland both said that the majority of everyday citizens, regardless of political affiliation, would express disdain for the idea of large amounts of money in politics. While this claim has gained traction among proponents, it has also garnered critics.

Monroe attorney Paul Voegeli asserted that the proposal of United to Amend has issues, specifically that it wants to remove the constitutional rights of corporations.

"It's great overkill," Voegeli said, specifying that the Supreme Court never explicitly stated in its 57-page opinion that corporations are people or that money was free speech.

Holland said corporations still have the "privilege" of making money through incorporation by protecting business practices, but Voegeli said such entities need constitutional protections outside of the ability to make political contributions.

Kelty said the group is not against corporations, nonprofits nor unions, noting that members understand the "entities are necessary for a functioning society."

During discussion of the county referendum in December, Green County Supervisor Harvey Kubly raised issue with the need for the referendum because he felt the Supreme Court has been adequate in determining free speech and freedom of expression. Kubly said it was a "waste of time and money."

Green County Clerk Mike Doyle said the referendum on the ballot would increase the April election costs by a total of roughly $1,500.

"That's the price of democracy," Holland said. "We want sensible campaign finance reform. We don't want to say corporations can't give money. We don't want to say individuals can't, but we want it to be sensible."

Holland said corporations and other entities should not be able to contribute "dark money," or political contributions made anonymously through PACs.

"It's all about 'We the People,'" Kelty said. "Because we the people are the true legislators of our democratic republic."