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Vermont Votes to Overturn Citizens United

From town meetings to the state legislature, Vermont is sending a strong message on corporate involvement in politics.

hand raise by jared and corin

Photo by Jared and Corin

Update, April 19, 2012: Following the lead of the 64 towns that voted on Town Meeting Day, the Vermont legislature today voted in support of a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. Vermont is the third state to do so, joining Hawaii and New Mexico.


In the seven states that voted on Super Tuesday, Super PACs—the funnels for unlimited corporate and millionaire spending legalized by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling—outspent actual candidates by a margin of three to one.

That statistic represents one vision of what the future of American democracy will look like: a system overrun by rich entities looking to forward their own interests. But Tuesday also provided a very different vision, one more in keeping with the idea of democracy we learned in civics class.

In Vermont, in addition to picking their Republican primary favorite (the state went heavily for Mitt Romney, for what it’s worth), voters also filled civic centers and school gyms for Town Meeting Day, an annual tradition since before Vermont was a state; Vermonters were voting in town meetings well before they were voting for president.

Norman Rockwell painted a Vermont town meeting as part of his World War II-era Four Freedoms series—and in today’s cynical political world, they begin to sound very much like an impossibly idealized, outdated vision of American democracy. During floor meetings, people stand up to make their case before their neighbors; their neighbors debate back. Voters directly debate and vote on budget decisions, tax increases, and other business, including the election of local officials. Citizens have a legally protected right to take the day off work so they can participate.

If that all sounds quaint in comparison to today’s Super PAC primaries, well, I can’t blame you. But this year, a strong message emerged from Vermont’s town meetings: It shouldn’t have to.

On Tuesday, sixty-four towns across Vermont voted in support of ending the rule of Super PACs by overturning Citizens United through a Constitutional amendment.

The Vermont townships are far from the first to take up the issue: New York City, Los Angeles, Madison, and Boulder are a few of the cities that have also urged Constitutional action to overturn the decision. The Democracy for People Campaign is hoping to help pass 100 more local resolutions this spring alone.

Occupy Zuccotti Park photo by Joseph O. HolmesRights are for Real People
Where the infamous Citizens United decision came from and how to overturn it.

State senator Virginia Lyons of Chittenden County told the Burlington Free-Press that she had initially expected to see only four or five towns Vermont take up the measure. But "people are just fed up with the status quo.”

It's true: in poll after poll, majorities of Americans report that the post-Citizens United status quo doesn't square with their vision of what democracy is. For all our cynicism and apparent resignation, we yearn for a political system more like the one that the Vermont townships are demanding. And the movement to make it happen is growing stronger all the time.


Brooke JarvisBrooke Jarvis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's web editor.

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