Reversing Citizens United

On January 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in its decision on Citizen’s United v. FEC gave corporations the freedom to spend without limit to influence United States elections. With this decision, the Court opened the doors to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics, further corrupting a system that, for decades, has been deeply compromised.

Greg Colvin, a San Francisco attorney writing for Campaign for American’s Future, proposes a way to amend the Constitution to undo the damage caused by the Citizen’s United decision and restore fairness to our electoral process.  In our country, each person has one vote, and it’s illegal to buy or sell your vote.  Colvin asks the obvious question: Why do we allow the richest corporations, business associations, unions, and individuals to buy enormous leverage to influence the outcome of our elections?

The radical nature of the Citizen’s United decision and why it needs to be overturned

Through this decision, conservative justices eviscerated laws that have been on the books for a century banning direct contributions and spending by corporations in federal election campaigns. They used a case originally brought on a narrow issue—whether an organization, Citizen’s United, could air a film sharply critical of Hillary Clinton without disclosing who financed the film—to bring back the corruption of the Gilded Age.

Instead of simply deciding the case before it based on existing laws and precedents, the court engaged in an outrageous act of overreach. On June 29 of 2010, it postponed a decision and called for new briefs and a new hearing. Then, the court deliberately chose to consider an issue only tangentially raised by the case, which was the 1990 decision that upheld the long-standing ban on corporate money in campaigns.  In deciding in favor of Citizen’s United, the court did not simply overturn a single decision. The ban on corporate money in campaigns had been upheld many times, over many years, by justices of differing philosophical and political leanings. There was no public demand to overturn these decisions. They were considered “settled precedents” and firmly embedded in our system of laws. Yet, the conservatives on the Robert’s court basically took it upon themselves to initiate a change in the law to allow corporations and wealthy individuals to exert unprecedented influence over our political process. Through this egregious example of judicial overreaching, they give new meaning to the term “activist judge.”

A new public opinion survey, conducted by Hart Research on behalf of Free Speech for People, finds that seventy-nine percent of Americans sharply disapprove of the Robert’s court decision, and support a constitutional amendment to reverse the Court’s ruling.

A proposed Constitutional Amendment:

According to Colvin:

It is not enough to declare that corporations are not legally persons, or to give Congress and the states the power to regulate the political contributions and expenditures of corporations and labor unions. Those are only partial remedies.

Past attempts to regulate campaign finance in America have been like the “squishy balloon”—squeeze it in one place, it pops out another. Limit what goes to candidates; it goes to parties. Clamp down on party fundraising, it goes to independent 527s. Disclose donors to 527s, the unlimited, anonymous money goes to 501(c)(4)’s. All the while, wealthy individuals still spend huge amounts to seek their own elections and force their opponents to try to match them.

The only way to drive big money entirely out of politics is to adjust our system of campaign finance to the scale of the individual voter, who has one vote to cast for each office or measure, and no more. The only source of money to influence American elections should be the individual citizen and, at the option of the federal or state government, public financing.

Colvin suggests that Congress and the States should limit the amount each citizen can donate or spend to influence a specific vote, including a candidate’s own personal expenditures in pursuit of public office, to the median annual household income in America, currently about $50,000. It seems limiting donations to a modest amount would be essential to make this Amendment meaningful. For example, without a limit on individual donations or campaign expenditures, billionaires could use their vast sums to donate to a candidate or self-fund a run for office, and continue to corrupt the electoral process.

Amendment XXVIII “Citizens Election Amendment” Version 1.0

Section 1. Only natural persons who are citizens of the United States may make contributions and expenditures to influence the exercise of a citizen’s right to vote, although Congress and the States may also institute systems of public financing for election campaigns.

Section 2. Congress and the States shall have concurrent power to implement this article by measures that may set limits on the amounts of each citizen’s contributions and expenditures, including a candidate’s own spending, and authorize citizens to establish committees to receive, spend, and publicly disclose the sources of contributions and expenditures, and by other appropriate legislation.

A summary of Colvin’s explanatory notes:

Campaign donations and spending by all sources other than individual citizens would be eliminated, but public financing would be permitted.

The amendment would apply to all citizen votes held at all levels of government—federal, state, and local—on the nomination and election of candidates for public office and on ballot measures.

Political parties, labor unions, business associations, and other interest groups would be allowed to be aggregators, convincing individual citizens to donate within such limits as Congress or the states may enact.

Congress and the States would move toward a single nationwide interpretation of the phrase “to influence the exercise of a citizen’s right to vote,” such as the Internal Revenue Service definition of “political intervention” that applies to all tax-exempt organizations and taxpayers.