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Election 2016 FAQ: Proposition 59, Overturn Citizens United Act Advisory Question

Proposition 59.
California Counts
Proposition 59.

Proposition 59 is an advisory measure that seeks constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United court ruling See a list of all our proposition explainers here.

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

The basics


In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that political spending is protected under the First Amendment. The 5-4 Citizens United decision allows corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on political activity as long as it is spent independently without coordination or consultation with candidates or campaigns. And spend they have.

Critics of Citizens United, including President Obama, say the decision was a grave mistake. They contend it has opened the floodgates for wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions to influence elections, and that in many cases they can do it anonymously.

Others counter by saying the truth is much more complicated, and that the impact of Citizens United is overstated.

If you want to undo or at least address the effects of Citizens United, there are two ways to do it. Congress could pass a new campaign finance law and the president could sign it. But there’s little chance of that happening right now.

The other option is a constitutional amendment, which is a very heavy lift since it requires Congress to propose a change and at least 38 states to approve it.


What you're voting on

In Proposition 59, the California Legislature is asking voters whether Congress should amend the United States Constitution to overturn the court’s ruling. It’s an advisory measure only. It wouldn’t change anything.

This is the Legislature’s second attempt at sending the question to voters. In 2014, lawmakers passed a bill that placed the question on the ballot. But the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit, challenging the Legislature’s authority to do so. The California Supreme Court ordered the measure pulled off the ballot until the legal dispute was resolved. In January 2016, the court ruled that advisory questions were allowed.

Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t embraced the Legislature’s efforts, but hasn’t blocked them either. He allowed the 2014 legislation calling for the vote to take effect without his signature.

In a letter to the Legislature, he noted the advisory question “has no legal effect whatsoever.” And he said that while he also disagreed with the Citizens United ruling, he didn’t think the state should “clutter our ballots with nonbinding measures ...”

When the Legislature voted again this year to send the question to voters, Brown again allowed the bill to take effect without his signature. Now voters get their chance to weigh in.

Fiscal impact — by the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund

Proposition 59 would have no direct fiscal effect on state and local governments.

Supporters say — by the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund

• Corporations and billionaires should not be allowed to continue to buy elections, yet the Supreme Court gave corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money in our elections.

• Overturning Citizens United will open the way to meaningful campaign finance reform that will return ownership of our elections back to ordinary Americans.

Opponents say — by the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund

• Proposition 59 is a waste of your tax dollars because it will not change the law. Our ballots should not be clogged with pointless nonbinding measures.

• Instead of working to amend the Constitution, we should work to require the disclosure of political contributions within 24 hours of receipt, year-round.

How much is being spent on the campaigns?

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