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California calls for constitutional convention to limit money in politics

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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.

Last week, California became the second state to back a constitutional convention to limit money in politics, reports SFGate. Its state Senate approved the measure 23-11 on a party-line vote, and the Assembly had passed it in January. The proposed convention would "limit corporate personhood for purposes of campaign finance and political speech," and "would further declare that money does not constitute speech and may be legislatively limited."

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, to overturn its recent rulings. 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 states (three-fourths of the total) must approve it in order to ratify the amendment. Ratification has usually been done through state legislatures, but in the case of the 21st Amendment, which repealed prohibition, state ratifying conventions were used instead. This is the only way the Constitution has 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 or ratifying conventions.

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 and California are the first states to sign on, and WolfPAC's organizing director Mike Monetta told VTDigger in May that 9 other states are considering similar resolutions. These states are 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. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) has asked Congress to evaluate whether a convention has in fact been triggered.

Though the new California resolution calls just for a "limited" constitutional convention, it's not clear that, if one does come about, 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 states before going into effect.