Town by town, Vermonters tackle question of ‘corporate personhood’ in the campaign process

MONTPELIER, Vt. - A senator with socialist leanings was among the first. Then there was Jerry of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame. Stephen Colbert has tweeted in favor. And now people in at least 52 Vermont communities will use the bully pulpit of that New England institution, Town Meeting Day, to push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring that corporations are not people.

States and communities from Maine to Hawaii and Florida to Alaska have considered similar calls, but tiny Vermont - with its penchant for using its annual testament to participatory democracy to offer the world opinions on issues way beyond the town budget - is making the most concerted effort.

The goal is to get rid of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations, unions and wealthy people to raise and spend unlimited campaign funds via political action committees known as "super PACs" as long as they don't work directly with a candidate.

At the heart of the debate is "corporate personhood," the U.S. legal concept that gives corporations rights like those of an individual. Critics say that it poisons the electoral process and that the only way to trash the practice is by amending the U.S. Constitution.

"People are starting to put the pieces together; they're all doing it all at the same time, all across the country," said Bill Butler, of Jericho, who helped write the proposal being considered by many Vermont towns.

"You start putting these together, I think you have the beginning of the most dynamic political movement in this country. It's because people are realizing they have to do it and they have to do it now."

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