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Vermont calls for constitutional convention to limit money in politics

Activists protest the Citizens United decision in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Activists protest the Citizens United decision in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

On Friday, Vermont's legislature became the first in the nation to back a constitutional convention to reduce the amount of money in politics, reports VTDigger.

The convention would propose constitutional amendments to "limit the corrupting influence of money in our electoral process," Vermont's resolution states. It adds that the Citizens United v. FEC decision should be overturned.

Since the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that campaign finance restrictions violate First Amendment free speech rights, many advocates for limiting money in politics have called for amending the Constitution. Former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the dissent in Citizens United, is on board. His proposed amendment would state that the First Amendment can't prohibit Congress "from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns."

There are two methods by which amendments to the Constitution can be officially proposed. The first is initiated by Congress — two-thirds of both the House and Senate pass a proposed amendment, and then 38 state legislatures (three-fourths of the total) must approve it. This is the only way the Constitution has ever been amended so far. But most observers think a campaign finance amendment will never pass the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

The second method for amending the Constitution, though, goes through the states rather than Congress. If 34 state legislatures (two-thirds of the total) call for a constitutional convention, Congress is obligated to convene one. The convention can then draft amendments to the Constitution — amendments that will later need approval from 38 state legislatures.

Cenk Uygur, an activist and host of the online talk show The Young Turks, launched the group Wolf PAC in 2011 to pursue this possibility, arguing that in contrast to the federal government, state legislators "are not, at this moment in time, completely blinded by the influence of money."

Vermont is the first state to sign on, and WolfPAC's organizing director Mike Monetta told VTDigger that 10 other states are considering similar resolutions. These states are California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado, and Montana. But of course, this is still far off from the 34 needed.

Meanwhile, conservative activists have long been pursuing a constitutional convention of their own — one to propose a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Twenty-two state legislatures are actively signed on, and 12 others signed on but later rescinded. Interestingly, those numbers combined are 34 — the magic number necessary to trigger a convention. And there's some controversy over whether states can rescind their applications in the first place, according to MLive's Jonathan Oosting.

If any constitutional convention does come about, though, it's not clear that it would be restricted to any one particular topic. Law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen argues that a convention would have the power to propose whatever amendments it wants, so some activists have feared that a "runaway convention" could approve extreme proposals. But any proposed amendment would still need to be approved by 38 state legislatures before going into effect.

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