Last fall, at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, professional ice cream guys and amateur carnival barkers, drew big crowds to see their one-of-a-kind Amend-O-Matic StampMobile – an interactive Rube Goldberg-type machine mounted on a flat-bed truck, designed to educate and engage people about the nefarious influence of money in politics.
Cohen describes it as, “One part Coney Island and one part clarion call for democracy.”
At the fair, people put a dollar in a small sled that spirals up an inverted cone and speeds down a roller coaster, triggering a series of events. There is a corporation posing as a person, a sign that says, “corporations are not people, money is not free speech,” and a politician who vomits cash. At the end, before being returned to the user, the dollar is stamped with the message “Not to be used for bribing politicians.” As more and more stamped dollar bills enter the market place, the message spreads. Cohen calls it “a petition on steroids,” and he’s touring the country and selling rubber stamps as part of the Stamp Stampede campaign to spread the word.
Cohen left the Common Ground fair with a blue-ribbon prize for the most educational exhibit. And many visitors left the fair with their own stamp so they could continue to stamp their cash all year long.
Cohen’s StampMobile and Stamp Stampede campaign resonate with Mainers, who have historically been ahead of the curve when it comes to getting money out of politics. In 1996, Maine passed the first-in-the-nation Clean Election law, and it has proved to be popular with voters and candidates. It has made it easier for Maine people to run for state office, and since the law was enacted in 2000, the average number of uncontested races has dropped, the number of women and minority candidates increased, and voter turnout increased and continues to outpace the national average. By 2008, 80 percent of state legislators were elected without any special-interest money, and the law is used and praised by Democrats and Republicans alike.
But in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court – the same court that brought us Citizens United – began to dismantle Clean Election laws. In an Arizona lawsuit, the court overturned the matching funds provision that provided a level playing field for candidates, ruling that such funds violate the free speech of privately funded candidates.
The Supreme Court’s decision imperiled Clean Election laws everywhere. As a result, participation has dropped. But the court’s damage goes beyond that. This court has made a series of rulings that have strengthened and expanded the role of big money in elections, with disastrous results for our democracy. While Mainers work to reform and strengthen Clean Election laws, they are also standing behind the movement to amend the constitution. The hope is that the 28th Amendment will overturn Supreme Court precedents that have sold out our elections, and enable real reform that puts citizens in the driver’s seat of our democracy.
While the idea of amending the constitution may seem abstract or even far-fetched, given the current state of Congress, people are ready for bold ideas. State and national polls confirm the desire for reforms that limit the influence of big money in elections and government.
Everywhere he goes with his StampMobile, Cohen hears the raw frustration that people feel. The Stamp Stampede provides an outlet for that frustration. “It’s cathartic,” he says.
More than 12,000 people, and more every day, are stamping hundreds of thousands of dollars every month. Together we are creating a massive visual demonstration of support for reforms and providing fuel to the myriad of local and national groups organizing people, filing petitions and lobbying Congress to return our democracy to We The People.
As we mark the four years since Citizens United, America is counting on Maine people to fight for a robust Clean Election system and strong campaign finance laws overall. Mainers can lead the way by urging their lawmakers, friends, neighbors, and community to support a stronger democracy, one where the voters are heard above all else and where money from special-interest groups no longer distorts the political process.
Freeport native Edward Erikson is a partner at MacWilliams Sanders Erikson communications in Washington, D.C., and a teaching associate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.