Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This was the Supreme Court case that changed the way money flows through politics. The way it is handled and dealt. The way it’s hidden and untraceable. The way it views corporations as “people”.
On January 21, 2010, the court ruled that the First Amendment prevents the government from placing any political spending caps on nonprofit organizations. It began in 2008 when a documentary about Hillary Clinton was made by the group, Citizens United. The movie questioned whether the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was capable of running a country as the president. This was clearly displaying a political view. The group shared the movie in theaters and on DVD and wanted to make it viewable on video-on-demand. To pay for advertising on broadcast and cable television, Citizens United would use its general treasury funds. Unfortunately for them, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act does not allow corporations like themselves to use general treasury funds in this manner. This would be classified as “independent expenditures” which corporations were not allowed to make. In the end, Citizens United was able to win under the protection of free speech. With a close 5-4 decision, the ruling opened the floodgates for billionaires and special interest groups to spend their money on political elections with no restrictions. This kind of spending is known as “dark money”.
Where is the money coming from? Dark money gets its name by the way it can’t be traced. The donors of dark money are not legally obligated to disclose the sources of their funding. Many political nonprofit groups and Super PACs (also known as 501(c) groups) fall under this category of “dark money” groups by keeping their sources of funding out of the public eye. Although the general public typically supports a cap on spending, this hasn’t slowed down politically active non-profit groups from playing the game. Visible in an IRS report, spending from these groups went from $5.2 million in 2006 to more than $300 million in the 2012 elections and another $174 million in the 2014 midterms. There is no evidence showing this will be slowing down anytime soon. People may ask, “Why are there not any laws to keep this spending in check?” There are. But when you’ve been doing this for a while and it’s your job, you discover there are many loopholes for money to be moved around. Hiding under veils of “educational spending” and “political grantmaking”, moving money around proves more difficult to trace.
As you could imagine, there has been a substantial amount of criticism towards the Supreme Court ruling and the use of dark money. Critics claim the lack of transparency has led to corruption within political campaigns. E.J. Dionne from The Washington Post, “Citizens United tore down a century’s worth of law aimed at reducing the amount of corruption in our electoral system. It will go down as one of the most naive decisions ever rendered by the court.”
Leading the effort to overturn the Citizens United v. FEC court ruling and keeping dark money out of politics is the organization known as End Citizens United. Established on March 1st, 2015, the ECU has a mission that is clearly stated in the name. End Citizens United is a PAC which is funded by grassroots donors and is committed to reforming the campaign finance system with the mission of passing an amendment that will reverse the Supreme Court ruling.
How will End Citizens United carry out their mission? The organization places a strong emphasis on selecting the right political candidates. The candidates with strong pro-reform beliefs will see the most support from the ECU. At the top of that list is Senator Elizabeth Warren, “As long as the Citizens United ruling remains in effect, our democracy is in real danger. It has emboldened a handful of millionaires and billionaires to flood our political system with unlimited, secret spending. These wealthy interests and powerful corporations have hired armies of lobbyists and lawyers to rig the political system in Washington to serve their interests. Enough is enough.” By backing candidates like Senator Warren, ECU will be able to raise the issue of money in politics to a national priority. A pew poll was conducted in 2015 asking for the public’s opinion. The results showed 42% of the public believe that money in politics should be a top priority. With more public concern comes a greater chance to see more ballot measures. This is basically direct democracy where the people vote. Usually on a state level. To change legislation, it’s always easier to start at the base with the voters. This is another way End Citizens United plans to make a change. Taking the decision straight to the voters. It’s a long game, but grassroots movements can lead to greater political change. The ECU doesn’t only receive support from Democrats, but that of Republicans and Independents alike. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, “You’re going to have money dumped in this election cycle that’s going to turn off the American people. There’s going to be a need and a movement to try to control the money in politics.” End Citizens United is currently supported by thousands of grassroots advocates across the nation. The lines of the political spectrum become a little less defined when many share the same view.
The decider of the Citizens United v. FEC, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy has stated, “independent expenditures… do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Given the rise of spending from special interest groups, is this something we can agree with? Is it simply outdated? One thing is for sure. The public wants to have their voices heard instead of a corporation speaking for them. End Citizens United is a new voice that is speaking up to keep big money out of politics. This dark money is only serving as a buffer. The less money, the less separation there is between the candidate and the public’s true opinion.