DENVER – The issue of corporate personhood is being brought up in regards to Colorado’s ballot initiatives and a mailer sent out by a Denver business nonprofit that ended up in the inbox of thousands of its subsidiary employees.
A Reddit user on Wednesday morning posted a business ballot guide from the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce that was allegedly passed on to 13,000 employees of HealthONE that outlines the stance of the chamber on several state and local ballot initiatives.
Some users took issue with the mailer being sent to employees, calling it “propaganda” and “completely inappropriate.” Some wondered it if violated electioneering or voter intimidation laws.
But when looking at state and federal electioneering and voter intimidation laws, it does not appear any have been violated by either organization.
NONPROFITS ALLOWED TO SUPPORT BALLOT INITIATIVES
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization that is an exempt organization under IRS code. The chamber’s website says its membership includes 3,000 businesses and 300,000 employees in the metro area.
To qualify as a 501(c)(6), the chamber has to “promote the common economic interests of all the commercial enterprises in a given trade community,” according to the IRS.
Under Colorado campaign finance laws, 501(c)(6) organizations are allowed to support ballot initiatives and do advocacy work in the Legislature, meaning the ballot guide is completely in line with state law.
Laura Giocomo, a spokeswoman for the chamber, said the organization hands out the guide at meetings and events, and noted the guide is also posted to the chamber’s website.
“Our goal is to put more Coloradans to work, so if policy or ballot issues tie back to [the Denver area’s] economic development or business environment…we take a look every year at every issue and make recommendations,” Giocomo said.
She said the chamber takes all the initiatives to its board, which votes on what measures to oppose or support.
On the ballot guide, the chamber urges its surrogates and their employees to follow its lead in opposing amendments 69 (ColoradoCare) and 70 (minimum wage increase); to support amendments 71 (constitutional amendment changes), 107 (restore primary elections) and 108 (allow unaffiliated voters to vote in primaries); to support SCFD Ballot Issue 4B (2018 reauthorization of 0.1 percent sales tax for arts and cultural organization funding); and to support DPS Bond 3B ($572 million in bond money) and Mill Levy 3A (property tax mill levy adding $56.6 million for school programming).
Under each initiative the chamber supports or opposes, it lists the reasons why.
The guide says the chamber opposes Amendment 69 “because of the staggering cost,” for instance.
Giocomo said the chamber opposes 69 over concerns it would affect the business community’s “ability to attract and retain the best people” and companies to the state because of what it says will be higher tax rates and undetermined costs.
“Of course we make that information available for members. They can do with it what they like,” Giocomo said. “These are tools to help educate them.”
The company sent Denver7 a statement on the forwarding of the ballot guide Wednesday afternoon:
“On Tuesday we sent an email to all employees regarding upcoming ballot items. Our intent with the email, which included the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s views on these topics, was to provide information. We often receive questions from employees about the issues, therefore we thought we would share information provided to us by the Chamber. We regret any confusion or miscommunication this caused. We encourage employees to educate themselves on the issues.”
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS BY COMPANIES
Both nonprofits and corporations are allowed to contribute to ballot initiative measures, though there are rules barring them from contributing directly to individual candidates or stemming the amounts they are allowed to give.
And Colorado campaign finance records show both the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and HealthONE has provided financial support to political action committees whose support or opposition of certain initiatives are the same as the chamber’s.
The chamber has so far given Coloradans for Coloradans, the chief PAC opposing Amendment 69, $100,000 this year -- $50,000 in January and $50,000 in July.
Coloradans for Coloradans has out-raised a pro-69 PAC by 5-to-1 so far this season. It has received the largest contributions from health care and health insurance companies opposed to Amendment 69, though many other people and organizations have also contributed to the PAC.
It has contributed a total of $200,247.50 to a PAC called Let Colorado Vote, which supports amendments 107 and 108. The chamber’s most recent campaign contribution was to the PAC, when it sent $100,000 over on Sept. 19.
And the chamber has given a total of $50,247.50 to two PACs supporting Amendment 71: it gave Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy, and Energy Independence $25,000 in June, then gave Raise the Bar – Protect Our Constitution, a total of $25,247.50 in July.
In total, the chamber has contributed $355,495 to various political action committees in 2016.
HealthONE has also been among the top contributors to Coloradans for Coloradans; it has contributed a total of $250,000 to the anti-Amendment 69 PAC through its various companies, including HealthONE System Support.
HealthONE also contributed $5,000 to Raise the Bar – Protect Our Constitution, which is a pro-Amendment 71 PAC, in September, but that contribution was returned two days later.
HISTORY OF COMPANY VOTING DIRECTIVES AFTER CITIZENS UNITED
The argument over whether or not employers should be allowed to direct their employees on how to vote is relatively new – such directives had not been allowed until the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.
Until that decision, U.S. law forbid companies from using their money in political contributions and barred them from influencing their employees.
But several major companies, including Koch Industries and Westgate, have lobbied their employees – specifically in 2012 directives to not vote for Barack Obama for a second presidential term.
Others have focused specifically on issues that may be bad for a company’s business.
Legal experts say that while such directives are allowed under the First Amendment, they come on a slippery slope, as failing to follow the directives cannot be terms for an employee to be fired as that would fall into the boundaries of coercion.
A report from the University of Denver said that Citizens United and other decisions have “reshaped the rules of campaign finance and the roles of various actors in the electoral process.”
It should also be noted that several studies released in the past decade show employees often respect the political positions of their employers.
A 2011-12 report from BIPAC Market Research found people trust their employer as a source of information up to three times more than they trust political parties, news organizations or themselves.
And a 2012 report in the Harvard Business Review showed 52 percent of people thought their employer “should be active in promoting public policies favorable to their industries” in 2010. That same year, 46 percent of people surveyed said they wanted their employer to let them know about political issues that could affect their job or industry.
Anyone with questions or possible improprieties dealing with electioneering, coercion or possible voter intimidation is asked to report such conduct to the Colorado Secretary of State.
The full ballot guide can be seen below.