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Four citizens groups deliver petition to fight Citizens United

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members from four citizens groups gathered under the statue of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va, in the state Capitol Tuesday morning to ask state legislators to back efforts to overturn the United States Supreme Court's "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" ruling.

That 5-4 decision, handed down in January 2010, allows corporations to act as people during elections -- meaning they can make political contributions as large as they choose.

Citizens United also allows many of those contributions -- some of which are worth millions of dollars -- to be made in secret. Nobody can identify the corporate donors. The Supreme Court extended the same spending freedom to unions.

Members from the groups West Virginia Citizen Action Group, CREDO, Public Citizen and West Virginians for Democracy gave Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, a petition signed by more than 2,700 people. The petition asked the Legislature to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

In its regular session earlier this year, many state legislators already showed support for a resolution against Citizens United. It had 56 sponsors in the 100-member House of Delegates and 10 sponsors in the 34-member Senate.

Gary Zuckett, executive director of WV-CAG, said, "We need to undo the damage done by Citizens United that allows unlimited corporate money into political campaigns.

"Sen. Byrd was such a constitutionalist. We should join the growing number of states that have asked for an end to this ruling," Zuckett said at the Capitol rally.

"I appreciate the opportunity to accept this petition," Kessler said. "I will introduce legislation again this year to overturn Citizens United.

Kessler said the most unsettling part of Citizens United is about disclosure.

"People can contribute money and participate in the political process, but not tell you who they are," he said. "They should be held to the same standards that political candidates are held to. This is not the best way for democracy to work."

"It is absurd to believe our founding fathers envisioned corporations being considered as people and entitled to protections of anonymous free speech rights."

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, who supported past legislative efforts to fight Citizens United, said overturning it would "take diligence. ... People will have to continue to fight."

Jonah Minkoff-Zern, from Public Citizen's "Democracy Is For People" campaign, said seven states and 300 cities and counties across the country have already passed resolutions calling for Citizens United to be overturned.

St. Albans is one of them.

Minkoff-Zern stressed the non-partisan nature of opposition to Citizens United.

"Recent polls showed that 80 percent of people in the U.S. oppose Citizens United. That includes 79 percent of Republicans, 81 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of independents.

"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. 'We the People' find our voices are heard less and less," he said.

Hedda Haning, a retired Charleston physician and member of Physicians for a National Healthcare Plan, attended Tuesday's gathering.

"Are corporations people?" she asked. "Rights are inherent for people, but they don't apply to corporations. Money is not equivalent to speech."

The four groups issued a statement pointing out that super PACs, trade associations and other organizations "have spent millions of dollars to sway elections [this year], in some cases outspending individual campaigns by a ratio of two to one.

"In West Virginia, political candidates have raised millions of dollars from super PACs and wealthy donors."

In the current election cycle, these groups have already spent $1.7 million to influence elections, according to data from the West Virginia Secretary of State's office. Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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