Fair Elections

By MPIRG

Health care, transportation, conservation, foreign aid, welfare: these are all issues affected by the way we finance elections in our country. The industry for political campaigns and advertising is huge, as is the fundraising process. The process is one filled with special interest groups, self-financed billionaires, unions, and corporations. Except in those states and municipalities with effective campaign finance reform and clean election laws, very few elections in this country are financially controlled by the constituents. To think that legislators are not in turn obliged to help out these groups in the form of favorable legislation is simply naive. Last month, the Supreme Court made one of its most monumental decisions in his history with regards to our nations election laws in its ruling of Citizens United v FEC. In short, the court decided that corporations are legal bodies with their own interests, and thus have the same right to freedom of speech that we express as individuals. This decision effectively reduced all campaign finance reform laws put into effect in our nations federal, state, and municipal governments to rubbish, and ending the momentum for upcoming movements for state laws in New York and California.

The court’s decision represents an inconsistency with past decisions and a striking contrast to the public mood, attributes that have not been characteristic of the Roberts Court. A Gallup poll from last month showed 76 percent of Americans believing government should limit the amount everyone –including corporations– can give to corporations. Instead, the court’s ruling displayed obvious judicial activism, overthrowing precedents set by Austin v Michigan Chamber of Commerce, FEC v Beaumont, and FEC v McConnell. While previous blows to campaign finance reform from the court, namely Buckley v Valeo, showed some judicial restraint in maintaining free speech while still leaving room for electioneering communication regulation, the recent case has taken out key provisions in existing reform legislation, namely McCain-Feingold, and made future legislation fruitless.

This leaves the question of what can be done to counter this. As it is, our political system is already ridden with expensive campaigns full of TV ads, signs, posters, and cross-country tours. A member of the House will spend an average of one of their two years in office fundraising for the next election cycle. The previous presidential election cycle was the most expensive in our nation’s history. Now, with latest court decision, a corporation such as Exxon can devote a mere one percent of their revenue and outspend both of the major campaigns from 2008, endorsing whoever they wish. As corporations gained their right to free speech, we, as the constituents, have lost our right to an equal access of information and to a government which represents the people according to the level of protection they need, not the amount of money they can contribute to the political system.

All hope is not lost however, as lawmakers such as Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have been working on several draft bills in anticipation of the court’s decision. Most of these bills work on bottlenecking the effect of the decision through forcing shareholder approval of any ads or CEOs personally being featured in ads their companies fund. While a true solution to reverse the court’s decision will require a great amount of political pressure, there is a great amount of work that can be done until then. As a case example, corporations will now not be as staunch of opponents to the public financing of campaigns, helping previously mentioned movements in New York and California, where corporate ads against the related proposition are a primary concern for the June ballot.

What does this mean for electoral reform? There is a great amount of political pressure on our legislators to fix this issue. However, we must keep the issue at the front of our minds. By speaking out through support of campaign finance reform laws across the country, particularly the national Fair Elections Now Act (FENA), we can both put the infrastructure in place for sweeping electoral reform and show legislators that we will stand behind them in their fight for preserving the voices of the electorate in the democratic process.

MPIRG can be reached at [email protected]