How Is Citizens United Ruining Democracy and How Can We Stop It?

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The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision changed our political landscape, allowing outside spending groups (and their often undisclosed donors) more influence than ever before. How bad is it?

At a recent NYU Brennan Center symposium, representatives from eight good government groups presented new research on outside spending, its real-world implications and what can be done to curb it. We rounded up eight key takeaways from the day.

1. Spending is totally out of control.

In order to remain competitive with the median congressional race winners in 2014, Senate candidates had to raise an average of $3,300 every day of their six-year terms. House candidates had to raise $1,800 every day of their two-year cycle.

As Demos’s Karen Shanton explains, this need to constantly raise money determines “the types of candidates who make it through the process and into office, as well as the policies that end up getting enacted once they get there.”


2. A bunch of (undisclosed) millionaires can swing elections.

Total outside spending in elections doubled from 2010 to 2014 — and that spending plays its biggest role in tight races, according to Ian Vandewalker’s data from the Brennan Center. As outside spending skyrockets, the influence of a few millionaires becomes amplified:

In fact, 60 percent of super PAC money spent on all federal elections since 2010 – $600 million of $1 billion – came from just 195 individuals and their spouses.

Undisclosed donations are also on the rise. This election cycle, dark money made up 28 percent of all spending in competitive Senate races. The winners of the 11 closest races benefited from $131 million in dark money, $23 million of which was behind Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). As Vandewalker explains:

“The public doesn’t know who spent that money … Does Thom Tillis know who spent that money? Is he going to give legislative favors to the people who spent that money? We don’t know and we can’t know. And the voters won’t be able to hold him accountable at the ballot box six years from now if he does.”


3. Independent? No way. Almost half are not.

Outside funding groups are supposed to be “independent” from candidates and parties, but that’s not what Public Citizen found when it analyzed a number of super PACs. The group delved into the PACs’ spending history, as well as the personal connections and employment history of their leadership.

Forty-five percent of all super PAC funds spent in the 2014 election cycle came from groups dedicated to a single candidate or party, and over one-third of total outside spending came from just eight party-aligned groups.

In Wisconsin, a bipartisan investigation is underway into possible coordination between campaigns and donors, which turned the state’s politics into a convoluted mess, according to a Center for Media and Democracy report. Brendan Fischer outlined the story, which involves Gov. Scott Walker, an out-of-state mining group and a partisan “news” website that published over 160 articles decrying the investigation as a “politically-motivated ‘witch hunt’ by Democrats against Republicans.”


4. Donor-related conflicts of interest are not unique to Congress members — They’re increasingly common among judges as well.

Citizens United turned judicial elections into “a grave and growing injustice,” according to Bert Brandenburg of Justice at Stake. Eighty-seven percent of state justices must stand for election in their career, making them beholden not only to the law, but to their donors. And, as Brandenburg explains, those donors are often the same people who appear before them in court:

“Judicial elections have become a playground for big money and hardball politics … Citizens United poured gasoline on this fire, and in turn, unleashed record amounts of spending by outside groups … Our judges are trapped in a crucible. They are in a system they did not sign up for. They are raising millions from people who have business before the courts.”


5. Special interest groups and the American public want very different things.

According to Jay Riestenberg of Common Cause: “Seventy percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage … So its really wrong when the Walton family and Wal-Mart can pour millions into politics in one year, and yet still pay their workers poverty wages with no benefits.”

Special interest groups continue to increase their election spending, further overpowering the concerns of everyday citizens. They spent more in 2014 than in 2012 – even though 2014 was not a presidential election year. Wall Street and financial institutions spent more than twice as much in the 2014 congressional election than they did 10 years ago in a combined congressional and presidential election.


6. Big donations mean more power for rich whites.

Outside spending is “the flip side of the same coin as voting rights issues.” Adam Lioz’s Demos report shows that although African-Americans represent a greater share of small donors than their population, their representation drops off steeply as donation size increases.


7. Outside spending keeps qualified — but unconnected — candidates out of office.

Candidates who aren’t wealthy and well-connected cannot keep up. In research presented by Dan Smith, US Pirg and Demos interviewed and profiled four credible candidates who were significantly out-funded – and ultimately defeated – in 2014. Smith called publicly financed elections, like those proposed through the Government by the People Act, a “clear path to a small donor democracy.”


8. Clean elections can work.

Voters just elected nearly 300 publicly financed state candidates in Connecticut, Maine and Arizona. Connecticut state rep candidates who raise a minimum level of funds though small donations can get them matched up to a ratio of 9-1. But could it work at the federal level? When Tam Doan and Public Campaign applied the proposed Government By the People Act model to 2014 races:

If Congressional winners were publicly financed, 77 percent would have raised as much or more than they spent in 2014, without having to reach out to a single new donor.

What’s more, says Connecticut State Rep. Matt Lesser (D-Middletown), publicly financed elections are better for incumbents, challengers and the public. During the presentation, Lesser offered the unique perspective of a candidate who has run – and won – four times using his state’s clean election initiative:

Not only does the system curb the influence of the rich and well-connected, but forcing politicians to ask regular constituents for small donations “really reminds us who we work for, who we’re supposed to represent.”

Learn more about the organizations working to get money out of politics in our Take Action section.

Katie Rose Quandt reports and produces for She was previously a senior fellow at Mother Jones and has written for America, In These Times and Solitary Watch. Follow her on Twitter: @katierosequandt.
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