Constitutional convention can work to repair Alaska politics

CommentAugust 17, 2012 

Since the Supreme Court's Citizens United case came down, Americans have been increasingly concerned about the quality of democracy in our country. Alarmingly, the current election season appears to be heading for domination by secretly sourced, massive donations of cash or related advertising support.

We can't fix the United States but we can set an example for our fellow citizens. Alaskans can do something about this, at least for our own state. In November, Alaskans can vote "yes" in favor of a state constitutional convention.

Here are a few democratic fixes that a convention can take up.

First, reapportionment. A Legislature made up districts specially designed to favor one party is undemocratic. The board should be nonpartisan, acting on the advice of professionals such as demographers and sociologists who can follow the constitutional directive to create "contiguous and compact" districts containing a "relatively integrated socio-economic area." A newly designed board can be selected by a blue ribbon grand jury or through a system similar to the one used to pick judges.

Second, the convention can consider a Legislature consisting of one chamber. Combining 40 representatives and 20 senators into one body will created 60 much smaller districts, giving the people in each district a better chance to evaluate their representative on a person-to-person basis. When the present system was set up, "one person, one vote" had not been declared the law of the land. If trees or tundra are not entitled to representation, why two chambers? One chamber works in Nebraska to general satisfaction. With two chambers, accountability is smothered under the labyrinth of bills passed back and forth and in the secret conference committee.

Third, strengthen the powers of the Public Offices Commission by putting it under an inspector general, prohibited from later running for office, with investigative powers over violations of ethical conduct and criminal conduct in both the legislative and executive branches. Disclosure rules can be strengthened. Note that the judges are already taken care of through a constitutional Commission on Judicial Conduct. This broadened commission should also replace the elected lieutenant governor as the supervisor of elections. Its budget can be fixed as a percentage of the Legislature's budget to prevent its work from being handicapped by deliberate legislative under-funding.

Last but hardly least, corporate participation in election funding can be limited through the facilitation of corporate democracy. The Supreme Court, in Citizens United, twice makes reference to the ability of shareholders to correct "abuse ... through the procedures of corporate democracy." Then, pages later, the court states, "Shareholder objections raised through the procedures of corporate democracy can be more effective today. ..."

The individual states and the United States have powers to strengthen the "procedures of corporate democracy." Consider the following possible reforms. A state can require that political expenditures be reported in annual reports. Require that corporations incorporated in the state take a majority vote before making corporate expenditures on political campaigns. Directors may be obliged to separately approve political expenditures. Require that Articles of Incorporation recite that political expenditures are barred (or allowed) out of profits. Most shareholders, including institutional investors, will pause when the proposition is put to them that political expenditures are to be made out of profits otherwise available for dividends. By way of addition, what if dissenting shareholders could take their share of the expenditure in dividends?

Foreign corporations (meaning incorporated elsewhere) pose special problems but under present law each is prohibited from transacting business in this state until issued a certificate of authority by the commissioner. Suppose foreign corporations could not be issued a certificate of authority without announcing that they intended or did not intend to engage in political activities, and met requirements of shareholder approval set by the Public Offices Commission?

Related fixes merit discussion. In addition, a convention might consider, in conjunction with similarly minded citizens of other states, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to cure the harm done by Citizens United.

Some may say, let's leave this to the Legislature. Surely they are joking.


John Havelock's book "Lets Do It Right," a study of the Alaska State Constitution, will be on store shelves in September.

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