Every January we mark the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. It has become an occasion when we acknowledge the damaging effects of the decision while strengthening our resolve to address the problem of money in politics.
Spending levels for the 2014 election are the newest evidence of the lasting effects of the Citizens United decision. An estimated $4 billion was spent on the 2014 election, making it the most expensive midterm election in U.S. history. Money poured in to Super PACs and other outside groups, and was also funneled to secret dark money organizations. Over $600 million dollars was raised and spent by Super PACs. These supposedly “independent” groups could raise and spend unlimited amounts because of weak regulations by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Too often, our elections have become about electing candidates who will do the bidding of their big-money and secret donors rather than addressing the interests of the people they represent.
What’s more, this type of system is also impacting state and local elections, including the election of judges across the country. The next big fight on the corrupting influence of money in politics will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, which focuses on the constitutionality of prohibitions on direct solicitation by candidates for judicial office. The amicus brief joined by the LWVUS and the League of Women Voters of Florida argues in favor of the prohibitions because the public must have confidence in the independence and impartiality of judges.
While the outlook may seem bleak, there is actually much work that can be done to stop the influence of money in politics. Here are just four things that the League will be working on in the coming year.
- Improve Disclosure: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Citizens have a right to know who is trying to influence their vote and disclosure of donations and spending is necessary to shine a light on secret money. The League is a longtime supporter of the DISCLOSE Act and we will continue to push for passage of this important piece of legislation.
- Establish a Public Financing System: The League believes that public financing is the best long term solution to getting big money out of politics. States like Arizona, Connecticut and Maine have had success in public financing with state house and statewide elections. The League continues to look for ways to limit the size and type of contributions from all sources as a means of combating undue influence in the election process.
- Strengthen Regulations on Coordination: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the federal agency in charge of our nation’s campaign finance laws, but so far they’ve done practically nothing to address the U.S. Supreme Court’s disappointing decision in Citizens United. Under existing law, the FEC can work to define “coordination” as a way of cutting back on the “independent” expenditures that really are coordinated with candidate campaigns, but thus far they have refused to do so.
- Vote: If the American public wants to get money out of politics, it’s time to take our elections back. Voting is the most powerful form of expression that a single citizen has. When citizens vote, politicians have to listen. We must improve voter turnout and engage within our communities to combat the undue influence of money in our political system. Get registered!
In addition to our work with the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, we are engaging in a review of our campaign finance position. The League of Women Voters is observing the 5th anniversary of Citizens United with a renewed resolve to limit the influence of money in politics.