The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission sent shockwaves throughout the American political system. The long-term implications of the decision are still developing and opposition to the Court’s ruling continues unabated, including by the political action committee (PAC) End Citizens United.
There are a handful of Court cases each generation that alter the political ground on which the nation stands. Cases such as Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and Roe v. Wade in 1973. These cases, and others like them, are not only Court rulings that were immediately controversial. They also had consequences that were ongoing — some of these ramifications are still playing themselves out today — and they resulted in permanent changes to American political culture.
Citizens United may very well be that kind of case for this generation’s Supreme Court; a ruling that it is long remembered for. Citizens United has already had a profound political effect and is a deeply controversial decision that has sparked a concerted political pushback. Political organizations have scrambled to counter the immediate political effects of the Citizens United ruling while also attempting to find a legal way to overturn it.
End Citizens United was founded in March of 2015 to help lead that fight.
The Citizens United Ruling
The case stems from an attempt in 2008 by the conservative group, Citizens United, to air an hour-long film attacking Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primaries while she was still a candidate.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) found that Hillary: The Movie was basically a campaign ad (and at 90 minutes, a really long one). Citizens United would not reveal who had paid for the film or the cost of airing it, even though then-current federal law required that the funding sources for political ads be identified.
Citizens United sued to have the FEC ruling overturned. A federal court ruled unanimously against Citizens United and upheld the FEC decision.
But two years later — long after the primary was over and Barack Obama was president — the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal court ruling and, in the process, upended a century of campaign finance case law. The 5–4 ruling had an immediate and profound effect. The decision can also be judged as more than a little creative.
The majority extended — suddenly and shockingly to many — the right of free speech that is guaranteed to individuals by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to corporations. This was done even though modern corporations had not really come into being when the 1787 Constitutional Convention and amendment process occurred.
The one-vote majority of the Court — over objections from the minority, including the strenuous dissenting opinion authored by Justice John Paul Stevens — basically did away with the ability of the government to place limitations on what corporations can do to influence the outcome of elections. Among other things, the fact that many U.S. corporations are multinationals with significant foreign interests and that the amount of money flooding into an already corpulent U.S. election system would rise significantly were ignored.
To quote Justice Stevens’ dissent about the legal philosophy the Court’s majority followed in the Citizens United decision:
“The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution … A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”
Ramifications of the Ruling
Professionals of all political persuasions recognized that the “new rules” the Citizens United decision had suddenly put into place were profound. It allowed corporate campaign contributions to basically be not only unlimited, but also largely anonymous.
It would clearly increase the number of television and radio ads that bombarded individuals during campaign season. The fact that donors would not have to take direct responsibility for financing them did not seem likely to do anything to cut down on the negative ads that most voters found so tiring.
It was clear that Citizens United immediately gave the Republican Party an advantage, since it had deep ties with the economic elite and with several of the wealthiest individuals in the nation who controlled vast corporate holdings, such as the Walton family (which owns 50 percent of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest company), the Koch brothers (owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned company in the United States), and the Betsy DeVos (who is married to the heir of the Amway fortune and would later become secretary of education under President Donald Trump).
For example, the PAC American Crossroads that had been formed to back Republican candidates — founded by Karl Rove, who had been President George W. Bush’s senior advisor and deputy chief of staff — was immediately able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. These funds were used in campaign efforts all across the country in the 2010 mid-term elections, which saw a “wave” victory for the Republicans in both the House and Senate.
Reaction to the Ruling
Negative reaction to the ruling has been continuous and heated, as have continued attempts by conservative activists to expand on the ruling’s implications and further deregulate the campaign finance system.
Both open-government organizations and activists aligned directly with the Democratic Party have been leading efforts to overturn Citizens United. It puts them inline with the public-at-large. Polls consistently show that a firm majority of Americans favor limits on what PACs can spend on elections and, specifically, widespread opposition to the Citizens United decision.
Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Political Accountability, the League of Women Voters, and The Sunlight Foundation have actively opposed the Citizens United decision. A plank in the 2016 Democratic Party platform calls for the Constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment.
The Founding of End Citizens United
Adding their voice with those of long-established organizations like the ACLU and the League of Women Voters, the PAC End Citizens United was formed on March 1, 2015. It is headquartered in Washington, DC.
The goal of End Citizens United is to, well, end the Citizens United ruling. The organization’s name gets right to the point.
The leadership team that established End Citizens United has not been coy about its goals. It seeks to raise grassroots funding that can be used to counterbalance the flood of corporate cash that Citizens United has unleashed.
That funding is to be targeted to Democratic candidates who support efforts to do away with the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision. The passage of state ballot measures that limit the influence of corporate money in politics and the continued advancement of campaign finance reform as a national political issue are also primary goals of End Citizens United.
The definitive goal of the organization is to have a constitutional amendment that clearly defines that the right of free speech is bestowed upon individual citizens, not legal entities like corporations. The underlying belief is that business operations should not be allowed to act without any regulation with regards to campaign spending in democratic elections.
Given the realities of amending the Constitution — support by two-thirds of both the Senate and the House, then ratification by three-fourths of the states — End Citizens United is also focusing on shorter-term campaign finance laws.
The emphasis of End Citizens United is on a two-step process. First, support candidates who are strongly pledged to improving campaign finance laws. Then, carry out specific efforts to overturn Citizens United.
Currently, the leadership of the Republican Party does not support such efforts — although some individual Republicans do — and therefore End Citizens United is concentrating its efforts on supporting Democratic candidates.
The money-raising strategy of End Citizens United is to depend on grassroots fundraising — much of it through digital platforms — to counteract the massive amounts of money being poured into the campaign system by corporate donors. This fundraising technique was made famous by Barack Obama’s primary campaign in 2008, though the campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 was the first to truly show the potential of small-donor political fundraising on the Internet.
An ancillary feature of such fundraising is that it helps to build a broad coalition of individuals that are focused on a specific goal, thereby creating a feedback loop of political activism. People work on the local level, which feeds into a national fundraising system, which in turn can then continue to help fund local activism.
The core leadership team of End Citizens United are savvy, experienced political hands who have worked in and around the Democratic Party in recent decades.
Tiffany Muller is the first president and executive director of End Citizens United. She has overseen the growth of what was a newly formed PAC in 2015 into an organization that raised $25 million in grassroots funding during the 2016 election cycle. Prior to taking on the leadership of End Citizens United, Muller served as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s deputy political director and had been chief of staff for two members of Congress.
Matt Burgess is executive vice president of End Citizens United, with over a decade of experience in campaigns and advocacy, including managing U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. Prior to his current position, he was Planned Parenthood’s senior political strategist during the 2016 election cycle and before that the national political director at Everytown for Gun Safety. He has also worked at EMILY’s List and for the Service Employees International Union.
Adam Bozzi is the communications director for End Citizens United, having held a previous communications director position for Senator Michael Bennet. He has served in a number of government and campaign roles, including on the staffs of Senator Jack Reed and Congressman Harry Mitchell and the campaigns of Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Ronnie Musgrove for Senate in Mississippi.
Anne Feldman serves as the press secretary for End Citizens United, coming to the organization after working in the same position on the 2016 Jason Kander for Senate campaign in Missouri. Prior to politics, Feldman worked at the brand strategy and communications company Derris in New York.
Andrew Lasker is the national finance director, overseeing the core fundraising operations of End Citizens United. In the 2016 cycle, he was the deputy national finance director on the successful Maggie Hassan for Senate campaign in New Hampshire. He also worked on Hassan’s finance team when she won the governorship in 2012.
Jordan Wood is political director, having previously worked on several U.S. House campaigns. His start in politics was in 2008 on the Obama for President campaign.
The policy leadership of End Citizens United is made up a number of experienced political professionals and includes the following board members.
A former congressman representing the 2nd Congressional District in Arizona, Barber served on the Committee on Homeland Security and the House Armed Services Committee. Prior to his congressional stint from 2011 to 2014, he was a long-term employee at Arizona’s Department of Economic Security Division of Developmental Disabilities before ultimately becoming its director. He also worked as the district director for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Jessica Vanden Berg
The founder of Maverick Strategy and Mail, a consulting firm that advises corporate clients on political and advocacy campaigns and other communication strategies. During the 2008 election cycle, she served as campaign manager for the ONE Vote ’08 Presidential Initiative, which built grassroots support to get presidential candidates to support policies to alleviate global poverty and healthcare scarcity. She was chief of staff for Representative Tulsi Gabbard and a senior advisor to Senator Jim Webb.
The chief operating officer of DSPolitical — a company specializing in digital advertising campaigns for progressive candidates, causes, and issues — Massicotte also has a wealth of direct experience in campaigns. He was finance director for Representative Rush Holt and is the eastern caucus chair of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. He was also vice president of sales and marketing at the political technology company NGP VAN Inc.
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky
The head of Social Policy and Politics at Third Way — the center-left think tank — Hatalsky also served on the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships for President Obama. Earlier in her career, she worked at the Alliance for Justice as a legislative counsel and at both the Legal Rights Center and the Center for Victims of Torture.
Simone L. Ward
Currently the executive director of the Women Effect Fund and its Women Effect Action Fund, immediately prior to that she worked as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s national political director and then director of Hillary for America in Florida. A four-term member of the Democratic National Committee, she has held senior positions on several senatorial campaigns. In addition, she has had leadership roles at Planned Parenthood of New York City and EMILY’s List and was a guest lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
One of the founders of 50+1 Strategies, a company that provides technical assistance to political campaigns and community organizing efforts. He has vast experience in get-out-the-vote efforts, including for John Kerry in 2004, Hillary Clinton in the 2008 and 2016 primaries, and Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. In 2009 he was named Organizing for America’s first national political director.
Currently the national political director at Gill Action — a nonpartisan organization that supports political action advancing the legal interests of LGBT people — Smith has had a long career as a political consultant. His clients have included members of the Supreme Court, members of Congress, and many politicians at the state level. His current work focuses on advising private individuals and organizations that support the implementation of progressive policies.
End Citizens United and the 2018 Election Cycle
Preparing for the 2018 election cycle with the wind in its sails, End Citizens United has set a goal of raising $35 million for the next election cycle. In 2016 it raised $25 million and supported dozens of candidates around the country. Already in 2018, it has endorsed 130 candidates. Its grassroots donor base is over 380,000 and it’s doubled the number of staff recently.
It is pushing candidates to take a “No Corporate PAC” pledge — candidates promise to not take corporate PAC funding — and supports them with financial backing. One goal of End Citizens United is to help candidates who are cutting themselves off from corporate donors.
There are also plans to target what the organization has dubbed “the Big Money 20,” incumbent officeholders who are the biggest beneficiaries of corporate PACs and big-money donors.
The possibility of a Democratic “wave” election this cycle appears to be aiding End Citizens United efforts. With the historically significant low polling numbers of President Trump, a rising number of Republican retirements in Congress (including that of House Speaker Paul Ryan), and continued enthusiasm on the Democratic side, End Citizens United is becoming a prominent player in what could very well be a very good year for the Democrats.