A Decade After Citizens United: Big Money Wins, Voters Lose

Shutterstock | Anatolii Mazhora

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Ten years ago today, the Supreme Court shocked the nation with a ruling that declared legislation limiting campaign spending by corporations, unions, and nonprofits violated the first amendment. Since that calamitous decision to allow unrestricted political spending, we’ve witnessed the most expensive decade of American elections and the degradation of the average voter’s political power. The 2010 decision was the final nail in the coffin for electoral spending restrictions that corporations and wealthy donors had been fighting for since the 1970’s. 

Citizens United created a paradigm shift in the way wealthy individuals attempt to influence the electoral process. Billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Tom Steyer, and Donald Sussman have topped the financial donation charts since the start of the 2010 political cycle. Wealthy mega-donors aren’t anything new, but in a post-Citizens United America where money is equivalent to free speech – their donations drown out the voice of the other 99% Americans.  

Most of the donations by mega-donors go to a select number of outside spending groups like SuperPACs and nonprofits that work to shape policy and public opinion in our political system. During the 2018 election, the top 10 largest donors gave $447 million, accounting for 7% of electoral spending and 97% of all donations to outside spending groups. 

These unfettered donations allow the super wealthy to influence policy, often in order to diminish competition or eliminate regulations that affect their bottom line. Take, for instance, the oil-magnate Koch Brothers who used their organization, Americans for Prosperity, to kill public transit projects across the nation and keep Americans away from less fossil fuel guzzling alternatives and buying more gasoline. While not all outside spending groups act in the interest of greed or personal motives, allowing wealthy individuals a backdoor to influence policy and public opinion erodes the foundations of our democracy.

This decade, we’ve seen outside group’s spending skyrocket from $338 million dollars in the 2008 election to $1 billion in the 2018 midterms. This increase is largely due to a Citizens United provision allowing the creation of SuperPACs, organizations that can take unlimited funds from individuals and corporations with the exception that they cannot coordinate with candidates’ campaigns. Nevertheless, many campaigns ignore these rules, since campaigns and SuperPACs can effectively work together on everything short of organizing strategy together. After all they have no reason to be concerned, considering the FEC has yet to penalize a single political candidate or group for unlawful coordination since the inception of Citizens United

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. 

The American public is attempting to fight back against the enormous amounts of wealth pouring into our political system. They’ve seen how a system that prioritizes wealthy individuals over their own constituents leaves them out of the prosperity of the country. Many candidates are now signing pledges to refuse corporate PAC and SuperPAC money, and some are even running exclusively on small dollar donations. Across the nation grassroots movements have pressured state governments to support campaign finance reform. So far 20 states, through voter propositions and state government resolutions, support a Constitutional amendment to either repeal Citizens United or seriously limit and control campaign spending.   

Fixing campaign finance is the gateway to enacting proposals that have widespread public support like progressive tax reform, wage increases, and voter protection laws. We need laws that guarantee elected officials are representing the collective voice of the voters, not the select wishes of an elite, deep-pocketed few.

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