CHAMPAIGN — The fate of a ballot referendum voters approved during an April town hall meeting regarding a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision on campaign financing is up in the air.
But it's linguistics — not politics — that are at play.
This week, the City of Champaign Township board, whose members are the same as the Champaign City Council, sent the advisory question to the Champaign County clerk to print on November ballots.
It ultimately asks voters if they would support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would reverse a Supreme Court decision in which justices said corporations have the same rights as individuals. Opponents of the decision in Citizens United v. FEC say it effectively unleashed a torrent of contributions to what are known as "super PACs," which have nearly unlimited fundraising power for politicians.
The referendum is advisory and only symbolic in nature, but Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten said there are some problems with the way it is phrased.
The ballot item would read, "The U.S. Supreme Court held, in 'Citizens United v. FEC', that corporations have the rights of real human citizens and are entitled to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of political campaigns. To undo that decision, the people of the City of Champaign Township support an Amendment to the United States Constitution to establish that: 1. A corporation does not have the same rights as an actual person, and 2. Money is not speech and, therefore, regulating political spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech. We further request that our city, state and federal representatives enact resolutions and legislation to advance the two positions proposed as part of the Amendment, with reference to the need for an Amendment."
Voters are then given an option to choose "yes" or "no."
But state law suggests that the referendum needs to begin with the word "shall" and be phrased in the form of a question, Hulten said.
"I've never seen a ballot question like this," Hulten said.
As county clerk, Hulten is ultimately in charge of the county's election ballots and said he needs to do more research before he decides what to do.
"I think I have two choices," Hulten said. "I can treat the certification as sort of clerical duty, accept it and put it on the ballot."
On the other hand, he said ballot items need to meet certain statutory requirements, and it is his responsibility to see that they do. "I believe I have enough authority" to say the question does not meet those requirements, he said.
Hulten said he will do more research and talk to State's Attorney Julia Rietz, who advises the county on legal matters, before he makes a decision.
City of Champaign Township board members faced the same decision on Tuesday. The board has to certify the question before they send it to the county clerk for publication, and they took issue with the phrasing, too.
They ultimately certified the question with a 9-0 vote. But they didn't really have a choice. They could not legally amend the question that voters approved during the annual town meeting, and they could not refuse to certify it.
Town board member Tom Bruno said the referendum is "awkwardly worded and a little bit irrational because it doesn't ask a question," but that is not his call to make.
"They voted by a majority to have this advisory referendum on the fall ballot," Bruno said. "I think that our role now is just to certify that that's what happened at the annual meeting."