For at least the past decade, American citizens have lived in a country where corporate donors determine the fate of elections. Voters are regularly misled by political advertisements that are sponsored and paid for by a variety of corporate donors. Monsanto, Remington, BP, and Chevron are just a few of the large companies that use their financial strength to influence the outcomes of American elections.
In order end to corporate influence in politics, End Citizens United is putting their support behind candidates dedicated to campaign finance reform ahead of this year’s midterm elections.
The Fall to Corporatism
In recent years, the problem of money in politics has reached a fevered pitch. When the amount of money is the primary determinant of who wins an election, corporations have a distinct advantage in politics. Without proper campaign financing laws, a democratic republic can fall to corporatism.
Corporations have become especially powerful because of data-based campaigns. Data requires a large sum of money to acquire. Since candidates with small budgets cannot acquire the resources to conduct a data-based advertising campaign, the dialogue of advertisements will be controlled by corporate PACs and wealthy political candidates. This problem was revealed in 2016 when the data consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to support the Trump and Brexit campaigns.
The problems of Super PACs and moneyed interests in politics are not new, but they have worsened since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010. This ruling gives corporations extensive control over US elections. Fortunately, many politicians have entered the fray to rally against Citizens United and large donors.
The Ins and Outs of Citizens United
Ending the norms created by Citizens United is a goal of many Democrats who are advocating for campaign finance reform laws. Before we can understand why Citizens United should be ended, we must know the details of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling.
In a 4-5 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the government cannot prohibit corporations, labor unions, and other collectives from contributing money to political candidates. Therefore, laws prohibiting corporations and other groups of American citizens from giving money to candidates are a violation of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Campaign Finance Laws Overturned by Citizens United
The Citizens United ruling overturned the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act is also known as the McCain-Feingold Act. This law eliminated the ability of corporations to provide funds for advertisements by political parties. It also limited individual political contributions to $1000. Unions and corporations were prohibited from contributing funds to candidates.
The Citizens United ruling also overturned the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 was under the umbrella of the McCain-Feingold Act, so it was overturned when the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was struck down by the Supreme Court.
Remaining Campaign Finance Laws
While the Citizens United ruling overturned many campaign finance laws, some restrictions were spared. For example, corporations must reveal the individuals who sponsored their advertisements. Corporations spending an amount greater than $10,000 on political advertisements must disclose the names of donors supporting the cause. Unfortunately, many PACs are able to avoid these requirements through various loopholes.
Logic of the Majority in Citizens United v. FEC
Justice Kennedy and the other justices in the majority argued that prohibiting corporations from donating to political groups is a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The logic of their argument has three components.
Individuals who are citizens of the United States have the freedom of speech due to the First Amendment of the Constitution. All citizens may express this freedom of speech by donating to political candidates.
All citizens have the freedom to form groups for the purpose of collective action. Per the majority in the Supreme Court, corporations can be considered as collective action organizations.
Citizens do not lose their individual freedoms when they are in a group. Therefore, groups can express their freedom of speech by pooling and donating resources to various political causes.
According to Justice Kennedy, Justice Scalia, and other members of the majority, the three parts of the argument imply that the rights of corporations and unions to donate to political causes is guaranteed by the First Amendment.
While the logic of the majority may seem sound at first glance, it is truly decisive. The dissenters in the Supreme Court base their counter-argument on the claim that a corporation is not a collective action organization.
Logic of the Dissenters
Justice Ginsberg and the other dissenting justices argue that corporations are not collective action groups. Corporations are not formed to address a policy that benefits their members. Instead, corporations are entities designed to maximize profits.
While corporate super PACs collect funds from the employees of corporations, the interests of the corporation are the interests of the board of directors and other elite individuals.
Corporations also have advantages that individuals cannot possess. For example, corporations have a perpetual lifespan because the existence of a corporation is not limited by a human lifespan. In theory, corporate interests could influence political outcomes over the course of many generations.
The dissenters conclude that all individuals have the right to donate money to political causes. Corporations and similar organizations do not have this right because they are not people. The Constitution guarantees the rights of only American citizens.
Problems Created by Citizens United
As we mentioned earlier, Citizens United has tipped the balance of power in favor of large corporations. Corporations and their ideal candidates now have the resources to secure data-driven campaign strategies and political advertisements to win elections. The unfair power imbalance can be attributed to unfortunate trends related to super PACs, dark money, and presidential public financing.
The fall of Bipartian Campaign Reform Act of 2002 allowed super PACs to become more prevalent in American politics. Super PACs are different from normal PACs. Normal political action committees could accept only $5,000 from each human donor.
Super PACs can spend unlimited money that it collects from corporations, unions, and individuals. Super PACs can use this money for political advertisements as long as they do not directly collude with a candidate. The majority of the Supreme Court assumed that prohibiting collusion would ensure that all donations would be independent of political groups. By extension, independence would limit corruption.
Unfortunately, many political organizations used this condition of independence to bypass most campaign finance laws. To gain access to unlimited corporate dollars, political groups simply need to say that they are independent organizations. In 2012, Super PACs used this new loophole to raise $200 million.
Recall that the Supreme Court upheld the disclosure of advertisement sponsors. The Supreme Court also upheld the requirement for corporations to disclose donors who gave greater than $10,000 to the PAC.
FEC regulations offer a loophole around these requirements. The FEC allows political advertisers to withhold the information of all donors who do not claim to advocate a particular advertisement or position. Because of this loophole, few people claim to support a particular advertisement. They effectively avoid having their information disclosed to the public.
PACs can also prevent the information of donors being revealed by laundering all funds through a non-profit intermediary. Oddly, this process of laundering political funds is legal.
These loopholes allow the political process to be swayed by unknown third-party actors. Advocates of campaign finance reform are also concerned that dark money allows foreign powers to manipulate US elections.
Presidential Public Financing
Presidential public financing laws were created during the years after the infamous Watergate scandal to curb corruption by presidential administrations. These laws established spending ceilings. Unfortunately, many presidential candidates can bypass these anti-corruption measures by using corporate PACs to finance their campaigns.
The problems of Citizens United have become well-known among many Democrats running for seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives. These candidates are refusing to take money from corporations and other large special interests. This trend is largely the result of the End Citizens United movement.
End Citizens United Gains Traction
The End Citizens United organization was founded by Greg Berlin, Charles Starnes, and Jake Lipsett. These individuals were staffers for various candidates in the Democratic Party. They noticed a political disadvantage for Democrats due to the volume of corporate dollars in the era of Citizens United.
End Citizens United is a PAC that discloses all of its donors. It does not accept corporate donations. End Citizens United supports candidates who pledge to support campaign finance reform laws that work against Citizens United
Since its founding, the organization has gained over 3.9 million members. 400,000 members are donors. Member have contributed over $38 million to the PAC in donations. The organization is based in Washington, D.C. End Citizens United is led by its president, Tiffany Muller.
In 2018, the movement against Citizens United became a national trend. 85 winners of primary elections rejected money from corporate donors.
In Texas, Beto O’Rourke is challenging Republican Senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke has made campaign finance reform a major part of his platform.
In New Jersey, Senator Corey Booker has pledged to refuse donations from PACs. Corey Booker is also a favorite among Democrats to be a candidate in the 2020 presidential race.
In New York, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is advocating transparency and fair democracy for all. She is working with other Democrats to oppose corporate PACs.
The corporations who have gained political power in the era of Citizens United remain a threat to democracy, but change could become a reality if these Democrats win their elections.