Clean Elections Texas Reflects on Citizens United

Looking back on fourteen years of corruption

January 2024 marks the fourteenth anniversary of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the door for unprecedented political spending by corporate lobbies, dark money groups, and mega donors. Clean Elections Texas was founded during that same year. Throughout the beginning of 2024, we’ll publish reflections from our team looking back on fourteen years of corruption and forward in the movement to safeguard our democracy from wealthy interests.

By Dave Jones, President, Clean Elections Texas:

The 14th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Citizens United v. FEC, for me, is a reminder of how we must continue our efforts to do everything we can to try and reverse this terrible decision — and fight its ongoing and now entrenched impact on our fundamental freedom to vote for candidates who will truly represent our interests. Citizens United vastly accelerated a big money takeover of campaigns for our public offices that has brought us in the years since a radical polarization of our politics and put in office extremist representatives only interested in doing the bidding of their wealthy special interest benefactors.  These extremists put up barriers to our ability to enact policies widely supported by most Americans: jobs that pay a living wage, full support for our schools, fair access to health care, and reducing gun violence.  

Representatives interested in the general public welfare still get elected, but they face an uphill battle against a large force of extremist representatives supported by wealthy special interests. When “money equals speech” then those with more money get more speech — and more unfair influence in how our country is run.  The laws that get passed, or not passed, reflect the priorities of a relative few wealthy individuals and corporations – not ordinary citizens.

Citizens United v. FEC struck down a prohibition against corporate independent expenditures in our elections, enabling corporations and outside groups to engage in unlimited campaign spending, as long as they don’t directly contribute or coordinate with candidates. Citizens United led to “Super PACs”, independent expenditure political action committees that are permitted to receive unlimited contributions and are often dominated by million-dollar contributions from billionaire contributors. It also opened the door for other “dark money” independent corporate spending in elections, where even the identity of big money contributors is not disclosed.  In Citizens United the court reasoned that independent corporate expenditures would not corrupt our politics because the limitations the court placed on donation and “coordination” with candidates would make them truly independent and robust disclosure requirements would allow voters to know the real people behind the big spending.  Unfortunately, in part because of the political dysfunction released by Citizens United itself, adequate coordination restrictions and disclosure requirements either were never created or have gone to rot and are not enforced. 

Super PACs unabashedly interact with candidates and dark money corporate entities exist and spend money influencing our elections without any disclosure of their contributors.  The dark money is particularly nefarious.  Who are these undisclosed people with lots and lots of money and what do they want?  Or to tell it like it often is:  what kind of policies that we all want — do they want to stop?  Do they want to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink or block our right to clean air and water to enhance their profits?  Sometimes we don’t know for sure, but we can guess based on the obstruction we see from the representatives they help get elected.  They help elect representatives who try and distract us by exploiting our fears and encouraging us to be angry with each other, while they steal our government and give it to the selfish interests of a wealthy and powerful few. The dominance of big money and secret big money in our politics is systematically taking away the representative American democracy our forefathers granted to us.

Just because we have been fighting the effects of Citizens United for years, is no excuse to reduce our efforts. We can stop this theft of our representative democracy. We can insist on laws protecting our democracy and assuring a truly representative government.  Laws to do that have been introduced and supported by the fair-minded representatives we still have in Congress.  The Freedom to Vote Act is one such law; the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is another.  Finally, there are excellent proposals for a constitutional amendment, such as the “Democracy for All” amendment, that would effectively throw the Citizens United opinion into the wastebasket where it belongs. Our political system is out of balance.  Wealthy special interests have too much influence. We must insist on these new laws and rid ourselves of Citizens United, to reestablish the right of every citizen to have an equal say in our democracy – one person, one vote — regardless of the size of our wallets.

Cody Meador

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