Canyon Resources Corporation Seizes the (Ballot) Initiative

Montana Initiative 147 Illustrates a Widespread Threat to Democracy

By Jeff Milchen
Updated November 3, 2004

Editor’s note: Canyon Resources’ $3 million investment bought a lot of ads, but not enough votes on Election Day as Initiative 147 was defeated by a 58 to 42 percent margin. Congratulations to all who worked to stop this corporate assault.

It seems investors overestimated Canyon Inc.’s ability to buy Montanans’ votes. Canyon’s stock dropped to $1.36 per share the next day, down nearly 53 percent from the Election Day close of $2.88.

When Montanans first employed the ballot initiative in 1912, all four measures passed had a common aim: revoking the corrupting political power of mining behemoth Amalgamated Copper. So it’s no small irony that, in 2004, a mining corporation is using the initiative process to try reversing the expressed will of Montana citizens.

Executives at Colorado-based Canyon Resources, Inc. (CRI) dislike Montanans’ 1998 decision to pass Initiative 137 and become the first state to ban the practice of spraying cyanide over ore piles to chemically extract gold and silver. CRI remains eager to build a new cyanide heap mine on the Blackfoot River that I-137 prevented, so the company already has invested $3 million (about 98% of all funds) to qualify and market I-147 — an initiative to reverse the ban. That’s a huge sum in a state where 30 second prime-time TV ads in the state’s largest media market cost just $900.

CRI promises new jobs and tax revenues, while opponents warn that the practice inevitably will poison our water supplies, as happened at the company’s notorious CR Kendall mine near Lewiston.

Arguments on those points will rage in the weeks ahead, but let’s not forget a more fundamental issue: why do we allow the citizens’ initiative – theoretically democracy in its purest form – to be used against us by non-citizens (corporations)?

Of course, one could argue that we’ve tried and failed to stop the practice. In 1996, Montanans passed I-125, banning direct corporate funding of initiatives, only to have it struck down in 1998 by a federal judge, based on the notion that corporations possess free speech rights just like you and me.

But saying, “we tried, and the courts wouldn’t let us,” is akin to blaming the Supreme Court for racism before it abolished segregated schools in 1954. The more difficult truth is we’ve failed to protect our rights to self-governance that many Americans died to establish and defend. Like in 1954, public pressure must compel the courts to change — this time to restore necessary limits to corporate power.

When American colonists declared independence from England in 1776, they also freed themselves from control by English corporations that dominated domestic businesses (thanks to preferential treatment by the king ) and extracted colonial wealth. After fighting a revolution to end this exploitation, our founders retained a healthy fear of corporations’ power and limited them to strictly business activities. For decades, states typically prohibited corporations from spending any money to influence politics or even public opinion.

In the 1800s, corporations gradually dismantled those barriers, and by century’s end, their lawyers had persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that corporations legally were persons entitled to constitutional rights, thus creating “corporate personhood.” The activist judges were undeterred by the fact that corporations are unmentioned in the U.S. Constitution.

Soon, corporations had perverted the Bill of Rights itself by winning its protections — even before women and minorities had full personhood rights — and used this power to deny political rights to real human beings.

Yet corporations’ did not secure a legal privilege to participate in ballot initiatives until the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (written by former corporate lawyer Lewis Powell in 1978) toppled one of the last barriers to corporate dominance of government.

Today, corporations face no legal limits to influencing or running ballot initiatives in the 24 states (and many local governments) that permit them. The Bellotti precedent also applies to referenda (used in three states), whereby state legislators may refer an issue to a vote by state citizens.

Montanans are not alone in facing corporate attempts at direct lawmaking. In California, a corporate consortium is advancing Proposition 64 to dramatically weaken the nation’s strongest consumer protection law.

Wal-Mart executives have repeatedly used ballot initiatives to overrule local laws that would prevent enormous new “supercenters.” The company lost a high-profile battle in Inglewood, California last spring by literally trying to exempt itself from all local planning and environmental regulations, but as corporations continue molding our law and culture, what was an outrage one year becomes the law soon after. Often, the threat of a costly initiative battle is sufficient to intimidate a community into bending or breaking its rules.

Citizens still win a few skirmishes (let’s hope keeping cyanide out of our rivers and aquifers will be one), but the larger struggle — to determine whether citizens or corporations will control the future of our communities and country — will depend on changing the rules of engagement.

The judges who overturned previous attempts to get corporations out of the initiative process handed us painful defeats, but take heart — each great human rights advance in American history has had to overcome some lost battles before winning. The struggle by citizens to reclaim our rights and return giant corporations to strictly business activities will be no exception.

Jeff Milchen directs ReclaimDemocracy.org, working to revitalize American democracy and restore citizen authority over corporations.

* Every one of 22 donors to the I-147 campaign as of 10/18/04 was a corporation.

Background and Resources

Montana’s initiative history is based on research by David Schmidt in “Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.” The Initiative and Referendum Institute provides comprehensive resources on the initiative process.

A good, neutral overview of some issues involved in I-147 is offered in this Washington Post article: “Controversy Over Proposed Cyanide Leach Mine on Blackfoot River”