This week, the Oregon Legislature did something important, albeit largely symbolic: It asked Congress for a constitutional amendment to reverse the 2010 Citizens United decision, an onerous ruling that relieved corporate campaign spending from government restrictions. Chief Justice John Roberts penned the opinion, stating that the First Amendment allows such "freedoms." Or, in more operational terms: Corporations and unions may spend their own money on political ads, a privilege previously only held by individual and regulated political organizations. The danger from such allowance, according to detractors, is that with more than 80 percent of elections won by the candidate with the most money, unchecked corporate and union spending can skew everything from school boards to the presidential elections. And does.
During the recent election cycle—the first federal election cycle impacted by Citizens United—it is estimated that the majority of spending specifically allowed by the Citizens United ruling, triggered a flood of unchecked spending on candidates.
Stated more plainly: Citizens United is one of the most important rulings this century. It opens up elections to abuses and it (further) transforms elections from competitions into measures of who can fundraise best, and who can attract the deepest-pocketed supporters.
Because of Citizens United, not only can corporations—and the subsequent so-called "Super PACs" they form—wantonly spend money, but individual donors (normally restricted to $5,000) also may channel funds through these Super PACs. The impact of Citizens United has been likened to putting Senate and other government seats on the auction block to the highest bidders. During the 2012 elections, for example, Karl Rove was able to mobilize a reported $300 million through Super PACs to support Republican candidates. In fact, 60 percent of spending in the last federal election cycle can be attributed to Super PACs, with most of that funding coming from fewer than 200 donors contributing at least $1 million each.
While such support and funding certainly is part of the political game, Citizens United has allowed such spending to happen largely anonymously and skewed elections toward the wealthiest contributors by providing individual donors a way to stay in the shadows.
But this week, Oregon became the 16th state to request a constitutional amendment to tamp down the Supreme Court ruling. Already California, Vermont, Rhode Island and, most recently, Illinois and Delaware, have made similar demands.
Although symbolic, these decisions are important—especially when they hit critical mass. So far, the number of states calling for restrictions and corrections to Citizens United is not critical mass, but the Oregon Legislature helped take a step in the right direction—and we reward it by putting a glass slipper on those feet marching forward.
Like some 100-plus city councils in 2002 and 2003 that passed antiwar resolutions, and local and state governments in the '80s decrying apartheid, votes like these are more than just sound and fury. They express wide-reaching public sentiments and often help exhibit the public's most honorable intentions. What's more, this is a voice that is increasingly important and endangered as corporations and those few wealth individuals increasingly control elections. These are voices that need to be heard loud and clear: Our elections are not for sale! The best candidate is the one with the best ideas, not the most financial backing. We agree with the Oregon Legislature: Restrict Citizens United now and bring as much fairness as possible back to our elections!