In my line of work, I often meet people who seem jaded with politics. Occasionally, I like to find out why. Their answers tend to revolve around the perception that the average person doesn’t have much of a say — that special interests are listened to more than voters ever will be. When I’m feeling optimistic, I’ll reply with a platitude that, regardless of money, the power is in the hands of the people who pay attention and vote. But this rings increasingly hollow. Emblematic of the problem is the now-infamous Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling handed down by the Supreme Court four years ago today.
Ruling in favor of Citizens United, a conservative lobbying group, the Supreme Court determined that corporations and unions have the same First Amendment rights as individuals. Not only does this mean that special interests can spend unrestricted amounts of money on campaign-related communications, it also has opened the door for so-called “super PACs” — political action committees that can accept (and spend) unlimited amounts of money from any entity, be it an individual or a corporation.
So what does that mean? In short, it means more money in politics than ever before. In 2010, the first year during which the ruling applied, super PACs seemed to be just testing the water — 83 of them spent $62.6 million. Two years later, 1,310 super PACs spent $609.4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Among the biggest issues with these super PACs is that they don’t have to disclose who their donors are — meaning that we have no idea what special interests were behind that $609.4 million spent to influence our lawmakers during the 2012 election cycle. Do we want a democracy based on secret power? Justice Antonin Scalia doesn’t think so: “Thomas Jefferson would have said the more speech, the better … so long as the people know where the speech is coming from.” It’s a nice sentiment, but unfortunately the political reality in Minnesota and elsewhere does not support it.
In Minnesota’s local elections, the problem is twofold. Not only do we not know who is donating this money into super PACs, but Minnesota’s laws don’t require disclosure of independent spending unless it expressly advocates election or defeat of a candidate. Notably, negative ads running right before elections are undisclosed under Minnesota’s election law. A bill introduced last year attempted to bring Minnesota in line with federal regulations; ironically, the final draft was stripped of its disclosure requirements and actually increased candidates’ spending limits. This is inconsistent with federal election law and 25 other states’ laws as well. Common Cause Minnesota advocates bringing state regulations in line with federal requirements, to increase confidence in our elections and trust in our representatives. As President Ronald Reagan was famous for saying: “Trust but verify.”
On the fourth anniversary of Citizens United, Common Cause Minnesota also supports an effort in the Legislature (SF17 and HF276) to combat the increasing influence of undocumented money. The bill is a resolution that calls on Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to clarify that constitutional rights apply to real people, not to special interests, and that money is not speech. Sixteen states have passed similar legislation, and we hope to make Minnesota the next.
It is not a crime to be wealthy. It is not a crime to donate money to a candidate, political action committee or organization that works on issues that are important to you. Greater participation in the democratic process should be encouraged. However, we should not be willing to allow a handful of special interests to donate unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. Dark money should not control the power in our government. As the Declaration of Independence reminds us, “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Until we are governed by a system that recognizes individual voices and rejects special interests, we should at least know what we’re consenting to.
Jeremy Schroeder is executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.