Since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, political contributions have taken an outsized role in the electoral process.
The last election cost about $7 billion — enough to cover the cost of college for 112,000 students, according to United Republic. The vast majority of that money came from a ludicrously tiny percentage of Americans.
It’s no surprise, then, that concerns about the role of money in politics —and of big donors in particular — continue to grow. While the 2012 election didn’t lead to any major shifts, that could change in future cycles.
Concerns about political corruption are potentially keeping millions of Americans away from the ballot box, making our elections less representative and less small-d democratic.
On the other hand, cities and states are starting to push back against the Citizens United decision and the power of big donors.
Leveling The Playing Field
One way to stimulate voters is the creation of a public matching plan similar to what New York City has implemented. Under this plan, every dollar given by small donors, up to 175 dollars, gets matched with an additional six dollars in public funds (if the candidate has agreed to take part in the system).
It’s had an impact: A report from the Brennan Center for Justice found public matching funds lead to greater equality in contributions, keeping candidates from simply pursuing big donors while ignoring the rest of their constituents.
This system is one New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has discussed implementing statewide in an attempt to block political corruption. It has met resistance, however, from officials claiming Citizens United still allows outside groups to spend as much as they like.
The resistance, however, could also serve as an argument for a public financing plan. Giving ordinary citizens an opportunity to have their voices magnified could incentivize more people to contribute in the next election.
Considering how few people contribute to campaigns today, a democratization of fundraising is something worth pursuing. Seven states have already designed laws to incentivize small contributions, mainly with tax credits for small donors.
There’s one potential problem: The Supreme Court has shown a willingness to strike down public financing laws. For example, in Arizona, a public financing law was rejected in 2011. To be fair, Arizona’s law was structured far differently than New York’s, but it bears repeating: The Roberts Court has not exactly been friendly to campaign finance regulations in the past.
The Fight To Amend
The best option for overturning Citizens United, apart from a Supreme Court decision to reconsider the case, is a constitutional amendment. At least half a dozen such amendments have been proposed in Congress.
While these amendments are broadly similar, there are some key differences. For one, many amendments do not address the issue of corporate personhood by making it clear corporations are not people. Other amendments do not overrule the Supreme Court’s doctrine that money is equivalent to speech. Additionally, at least one amendment would not affect nonprofit groups like 501(c)(4) organizations, which benefit from looser transparency requirements when it comes to their donors.
Probably the strictest option, backed by the group Move to Amend, would address all three of these issues, presumably keeping big donors from spending as much as they want on elections and opening up other donations to public scrutiny.
Given how divided this Congress is, passing an amendment overturning Citizens United would be an uphill battle, but this doesn’t mean support is lacking.
Public Support Ramps Up
Surveys find strong public support for a new campaign finance amendment, including among Republicans and independents.
Additionally, at least one-third of the House of Representatives, Senate, and state legislatures have signed on to a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, according to Free Speech for People. Sixteen states and nearly 500 cities have called for an amendment, either through a ballot initiative or legislative action, though as of now, none of those have the force of law.
This level of support for a constitutional amendment clearly demonstrates a broad public disapproval of Citizens United and certainly offers abundant political cover for any members of Congress on board. Any step to push back Citizens United, even one that doesn’t initially roll the decision back, is worth taking.