By Peg Willingham
It’s not even Labor Day – the traditional time for election season to go into high gear – and Virginians are already seeing a lot of political commercials. Whether we like these ads or not, the people who are running have the right to express their views and seek our votes. So do the candidates knocking on our doors to ask us to vote for them for city council or the General Assembly. But our country’s electoral environment has changed for the worse since the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Thanks to this ruling, unlimited corporate spending is now allowed in federal and state elections. Who loses now in those contests? Voters like you and me.
As you probably know, five members of the Supreme Court asserted that the First Amendment applies to corporations, holding that limits on campaign spending are unlawful restrictions on speech. This misguided and harmful decision overturned 100 years of federal and state laws limiting corporate expenditures on elections. Unlike traditional political action committees, Super PACs can raise money from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups, without any legal limit on donation size. (By comparison, regular PACs can contribute no more than $5,000 for a federal primary election and $5,000 for a general election.)
As we saw in the 2012 election cycle, wealthy individuals, corporations and other outside groups poured $1.1 billion – and over $300 million in secret – into federal campaigns alone. This trend is continuing, and our democracy will be the worse for it.
Money in politics is not new. However, this distorted definition of free speech and the corrupting influence of unlimited and secret money is a direct threat to good government and people’s participation in local decision-making. The latter are values that residents of Falls Church cherish. We take pride in civic engagement, participating with our neighbors in commissions, boards, and non-profit organizations to strengthen our community. We like being able to have a say in matters like when to hold local elections or the sale of the water system. In short, we like to feel that our opinions count and we have an equal voice.
That balance is now threatened. Unlimited corporate spending erodes the public’s trust in our electoral system at all levels, including the local level. It reduces citizen participation in government, which weakens our democracy and worsens political inequality between moneyed interests and ordinary citizens. Young people will be discouraged from getting involved at the grassroots level if they think that the deck is overwhelmingly stacked against them.
Corporations are not people, and money is not speech. The Virginians who wrote the Declaration of Independence and shaped the Constitution surely did not envision a future in which the First Amendment protected large business enterprises at the expense of citizens. Money is property, not speech. Just because a corporation or individual has accumulated significant wealth, they should not be allowed to drown out the speech of others – but that is the new reality. Alarmingly, more than one-third of all contributions to Super PACs in last year’s presidential election came from just ten wealthy people – out of more than 200 million eligible voters.
By comparison, the amount needed to influence a local election is relatively modest. You may doubt that Super PACs would care about getting involved at the local level, but it has already happened.
In the April 2012 elections for Oklahoma City Council, a Super PAC spent $400,000 on four candidates’ campaigns. (The annual salary for an Oklahoma City Council member is $12,000.) Three of these four Super PAC favorites won. Donors were shielded from public disclosure. A similar dynamic occurred in the May 2012 council election in Durham, North Carolina. That’s what the Citizens United ruling has brought about.
Well, what can we do about it? How can we compete with that kind of money?
The good news is that people all across the country have taken concrete action to protect our democracy. They are part of an organization called Move to Amend, whose goal is to get state legislatures to ratify a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. Yes, amending the Constitution is an ambitious and long-term effort. However, this coalition of hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of individuals has already convinced more than 500 cities, towns, and counties – and 16 states – to pass resolutions to do just that. These range from states like Montana to our neighbors in Arlington County. The momentum is growing, including here in Falls Church, where residents are gathering petition signatures and meeting with policymakers.
Leveling the playing field and restoring trust in our politics won’t be easy, but it is achievable. Join us – our democracy is worth it.
Peg Willingham is a member of Northern Virginia MoveToAmend.