What Citizens United has Wrought on US Elections

We’re approaching the eighth anniversary of the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) ruling. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, changed the nature of money in politics, and absolutely none of it for the good. At least the good of 90% of American citizens. Let’s look back on what exactly happened.

Citizens United, a conservative non-profit, wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton, titled Hillary: The Movie before the 2008 Democratic primary election. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, a federal law that amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1976, proved a challenge to the film’s release. Thus, “Citizens United sought an injunction against the Federal Election Commission in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to overturn sections of the BCRA.”

The BCRA addressed two issues of campaign finance:

  • The increased reliance on “soft money” contributions. There is no limit on soft money contributions to political parties from corporations, unions, and/or individuals “as long as it goes into soft money accounts.
  • The rapid increase in issue advocacy ads. The law defined broadcast ads that name a federal candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary or caucus as “electioneering communications.” These ads were prohibited if they were paid for by any corporation (including non-profits) and/or an entity using union treasury or corporate funds.

Citizens United argued that the limitations on advocacy ads violated the First Amendment, and that the section of BCRA that required the disclosure of donors was also unconstitutional. The US District Court denied the injunction, citing the decision reached in McConnell v. FEC and the case moved on to the Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 party line vote, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United. The decision overturned sections of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. FEC. The majority found that the First Amendment requires corporate spending on independent political broadcasts in elections to be unlimited. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, in which he stated:

“Modern day movies, television comedies, or skits on Youtube.com might portray public officials or public policies in unflattering ways. Yet if a covered transmission during the blackout period creates the background for candidate endorsement or opposition, a felony occurs solely because a corporation, other than an exempt media corporation, has made the “purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, deposit, or gift of money or anything of value” in order to engage in political speech. 2 U. S. C. §431(9)(A)(i). Speech would be suppressed in the realm where its necessity is most evident: in the public dialogue preceding a real election.”

In his concurring-in-part, dissenting-in-part opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:

“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

Two election cycles later, we are seeing the impact of Citizens United in the influx of corporate influence in elections at the local and federal level. It appears that Justice Stevens’ fear that the political power of individuals would dwindle in favor of monied interests was not a guess but our present reality.

In the end, Citizen United has achieved an historically horrid coup in that it has allowed big money interests to hide behind a mantle of corporate secrecy and throw as much money as they want or have, and both have proven to be a lot, to forward causes and candidates who forward their own selfish, greed driven dreams. This country was founded as a nation for ALL peoples! Citizen United has redrawn the lines, as one would predict, and that is to assure that wealthy individuals and people get what they want in the way they want it. As long as rulings like Citizens United stand as the interpretation of our Constitution, America will continue to move, inexorably, to a plutocratic land where the rich get all of the spoils and everyone else get the dregs. A return to 17th Century Europe. That is not what I have worked all my life for nor the legacy I want to leave my children!

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