Op-Ed

6 years after Citizens United, signs of hope for democracy

Today, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision turns six, marking another year of mega-donor politics and secret political spending. It’s the same court decision that determined money is speech and corporations are people, both concepts fundamentally at odds with a democratic system of government and basic common sense.

But there’s another misguided theory that’s holding back democracy in the United States.

The concept that has taken hold over the past six years, the one that Citizens United drove into the American psyche, is that our elections are irreparable, that reform is out of reach for the American people. Our democracy is hurting, but a close look at victories won against big-money politics and at growing bipartisan support for reform shows that this myth just doesn’t stand up to the facts.

At first glance, big money-politics can look like an unstoppable juggernaut. In each election since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, super PACs and outside special interest groups have broken fundraising records. It’s not only a national trend; it’s happening in North Carolina. The 2014 Senate race between former Sen. Kay Hagan and Sen. Thom Tillis was the most expensive Senate race of all time, totaling about $113 million spent. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, $81 million of that money came from outside groups with no donor contribution limits.

Just 158 families

Today’s presidential race is likely to be similar. According to a recent report by the New York Times, just 158 families provided half of all early campaign money in the 2016 presidential election. Under Citizens United, courting wealthy mega-donors – who often have different priorities and policy preferences from most voters – has taken precedence over appealing to everyday Americans.

Big-money politics has damaged our democracy, but across the country, Americans are standing up for and winning reforms. In state after state, voters and legislators have passed laws supporting an amendment to the Constitution that would overturn Citizens United and allow for reasonable limits on big-money politics. Sixteen states and nearly 700 communities nationwide have called for an amendment to overturn the decision – including Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Support for an amendment isn’t limited to any one political party. A recent poll by Bloomberg showed that a full 78 percent of Democrats, Republicans and Independents support overturning Citizens United. A New York Times and CBS News poll showed that 85 percent of Americans believe our country’s campaign finance system needs fundamental changes or must be completely rebuilt.

At the state level

Today, voters are also waging the fight for clean elections at the state and local level all around the country. On Election Day 2015, Maine voters passed a ballot initiative strengthening their state’s clean elections law, allowing citizens of all walks of life to run for office without needing to depend on wealthy donors. On the same day, Seattle voters passed a first-in-the-nation program to refocus local elections on constituents rather than special interests. These two victories took place on opposite sides of the country, but they tell the story of a single movement – one to put ordinary voters back in control of our elections.

In addition to standing up against super PAC and mega-donor influence in our elections, voters are working to stem the tide of secret, undisclosed campaign spending unleashed by Citizens United. Voters need to know who’s backing the candidates on their ballots, and last month a coalition of organizations delivered a million petitions to the president, urging him to take action to strengthen disclosure. With one stroke of the pen, President Obama could sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending.

On the sixth anniversary of Citizens United, opportunities for real reform exist. Americans want solutions – they’re proposing solutions, voting for solutions and putting solutions into practice – no million-dollar super PAC can stop that.

Across the country, Americans are proving that democracy isn’t dead, no more than corporations are people or money is speech.

Dan DeRosa is the advocate for the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group.

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