Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the U.S. Supreme Court has become a powerful force for curtailing and denying voting rights to Americans everywhere — an outcome that would have been unthinkable before Roberts joined the court in 2005, and, in one of the great whoppers of judicial confirmation history, likened his role to a baseball umpire, saying “My job is to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.”

The high court’s assault on democracy began with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, where a 5-4 decision equated free speech with campaign spending, and eliminated all the contribution limits in McCain-Feingold, the bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, and gutting dozens of other federal and state laws. No limits are constitutional, the Roberts’ court decided, and the result, in the 2012 and 2016 presidential races, is that the only thing a candidate really needs is a friendly billionaire willing to pledge $50 million to $100 million to run a national campaign. No other qualifications required.

The second major attack came in Shelby County v. Holder, in 2013, where the same 5-4 majority struck down the key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the law President Lyndon Johnson signed just months after civil rights marchers were battered by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The scene was movingly re-enacted last March, 50 years after the day that changed the nation, for the better.

Roberts wrote that decision, asserting that special protection for minority voters was no longer needed, because “things have changed dramatically,” and “blatant discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” Perhaps not a whopper but certainly, as Mark Twain put it, a “stretcher.”

In between came another Roberts’ opinion — yes, 5-4 — in 2011, striking down part of Arizona’s campaign finance law, which was modeled on Maine’s Clean Election Act. In Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, Roberts ridiculed the goal of providing “a level playing field” through voluntary public financing, and the court eliminated matching funds provisions that once saw 80 percent of Maine candidates participating. Without matching funds, the rate among Maine Clean Election candidates has dropped below 50 percent.

Roberts deployed Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning, contesting the idea that public financing increases speech by allowing candidates without large bankrolls to compete. Roberts said, “Any increase in speech resulting … is of one kind only — that of publicly financed candidates.” Privately financed campaigns would have their speech “reduced” — here’s the good part — because “more speech” by public candidates damages “the relative voice of others.” That is, spending tons of money doesn’t create an automatic advantage.

It’s no wonder that since this trio of notorious decisions, federal campaign spending has mushroomed from thousands to millions of dollars, and races in large states aren’t far behind. The ancients called this “plutocracy” — government by the rich.

What’s the ordinary, non-rich citizen to do? For naysayers, not much. The Republican Party, in Washington and Maine, has blocked all efforts to change the laws to meet the high court’s strictures, even on disclosure — specifically invited by Citizens United. Overturning that decision would require a constitutional amendment, or a retirement among the Roberts Five, events likely some distance off. Shelby could be fixed by Congress, but not the current Congress.

Fortunately, there’s something Mainers, and only Mainers, can do to help restore democracy — “government by the people.” The Clean Elections Act referendum in November is the best available way to say “no” to the Roberts’ court’s trivialization of our right to vote.

It’s not an especially ambitious law. It would substitute a new system to allow candidates whose opponents dramatically outspend them to raise more money. It would require adequate funding of the Clean Election Fund, ensuring, once again, that candidates for governor could qualify. And it requires accountability for a governor’s transition spending. As I said, modest. But it’s a start. Even if you’re not excited by campaign reform laws, you should vote for this one, as a message to Washington.

Though it’s hard to believe now, in 1974, Congress nearly passed a law providing public financing for congressional elections, which could have avoided the whole plutocratic era. Congress did establish public financing for presidential elections, which lasted, though increasingly frayed, until, regrettably, Barack Obama refused public funding in 2008 to raise more millions on his own.

It will take years, and a dramatically different Supreme Court and Congress, to undo all the damage done over the past five years. But on Nov. 3, Maine can, in a small way, relight the lamp of liberty and show that, after all, we are all created equal.

Douglas Rooks, of West Gardiner, has covered the State House for 30 years. Email at [email protected].


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