It seems like every election cycle, everybody’s talking about Citizens United. Countless politicians, primarily Democrats, have spoken out against the Supreme Court decision, including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who said, “We must overturn Citizens United and move to public funding of elections.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, too, said, “If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United.” But what exactly are they talking about—what is Citizens United? And why does it matter so much in modern elections?
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a 2010 Supreme Court Case that ruled that it was unconstitutional to limit political funding by corporations, as long as the funds were not directly paid to a candidate. Specifically, Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, took issue with provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that prohibited the release of its film Hillary: The Movie. The movie painted Hillary Clinton as unfit for office and was treated as a form of “electioneering communications” by the FEC. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was unconstitutional, opening elections to unlimited spending by corporations.
Many politicians, especially Democrats, are strongly opposed to the Citizens United decision—so why did the Supreme Court make it in the first place? The Supreme Court ruled that limiting independent spending by a corporation was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. In his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that free speech was no less indispensable to democracy because it comes from a corporation. The court assumed that maintaining rules about the disclosure of donors the spending would remain transparent and free of corruption. These assumptions have clearly proven incorrect. While this reasoning seems understandable, removing spending restrictions that had been in place for over a century was bound to be a risky decision, one that very clearly did not pay off.
There are two kinds of election spending. The first is hard money: traditional election spending that must be reported and which is limited in amount by law. Groups like Political Action Committees (PACs), candidate committees, and political parties coordinate how hard money is spent. The second kind is soft money or outside spending, which includes unlimited amounts of money spent through organizations not directly involved with a candidate or political party. Some soft money is disclosed, including that spent by superPACs, but some is not; this undisclosed spending is called dark money.
The rise of dark money was not a direct result of Citizens United; among other factors, the 2007 Supreme Court ruling in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life opened a loophole in disclosure of campaign funding that Citizens United has only widened. Some dark money is spent through non profit organizations that are not explicitly political and often not required to report their donors. Although SuperPACs themselves are required to disclose their donors, some of these donors themselves are nonprofits or shell corporations that do not report their contributors. A shell corporation is simply a corporation that exists for the purpose of managing sums of money and which does not have any business operations. Since the Citizens United decision was made, dark money groups have spent roughly $1 billion dollars to influence elections.
The primary effect of Citizens United has been to exacerbate a growing wealth gap in America by allowing the wealthy to wield unprecedented power over the outcome of elections. In the 2020 federal election, about $100 million in dark money was reported to the FEC, but the true amount spent is likely far higher. According to Open Secrets and the Wesleyan Media Project, “‘Dark money’ groups have poured more than $750 million into 2020 elections through ad spending and record-breaking contributions to political committees such as super PACs.” This exorbitant spending by businesses and the wealthy seems to confirm the feeling of many Americans that their vote doesn’t count—money does. According to the Brennan Center, “An election system that is skewed heavily toward wealthy donors also sustains racial bias and reinforces the racial wealth gap.” The overwhelming presence of dark money and massive contributions by corporations and the wealthy in modern electoral politics dilutes the influence of the masses and magnifies the influence of the few.
So, what can be done about it? Many organizations and politicians are at work to get big money out of politics. Ellie Dougherty, a spokeswoman for End Citizens United, an organization that works to elect reform-minded politicians and pass finance reforms, explained in an interview with The Politic that the most direct solution is the Democracy for All Amendment (H.J. Resolution 1) which would overturn the Citizens United decision by allowing state and federal governments to pass laws that regulate election spending. The Amendment was reintroduced in the House this year (it was introduced for the first time during the 113th Congress), and it will have to pass the House and the Senate with a two-thirds majority before being introduced to the states for ratification. In the past, it has failed to meet these requirements. Besides simply overturning the decision, End Citizens United is promoting The For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) which is, according to Dougherty, “a transformational package of anti-corruption, voting and ethics reforms.” The Act includes anti-gerrymandering provisions and would, perhaps most importantly, require donors who give $10,000 or more to be disclosed.
Organizations like End Citizens United also push reform by working “to elect democracy reform champions at the state and federal levels, pass meaningful legislative reforms, and elevate these issues in the national conversation.” Dougherty explained that the most important thing for readers to do is to elect leaders “who will fight to unrig the broken system in Washington and pressure our elected officials right now to pass critical reform legislation like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”
Ending corruption and dark money spending in American elections is a major part of making democracy work for all Americans. Free and fair elections cannot occur until politicians depend on the people, not on a few corporations or SuperPACs, to be reelected. Citizens United is a significant roadblock in the fight for democratic reform, but it is not impossible to overcome.