Last week New York became the 17th state to formally call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. This landmark achievement came as the result of a multiyear collaborative campaign involving several advocacy groups including People For the American Way.
On behalf of the 156,000 PFAW members who live in New York, Government By the People Campaign Manager Rio Tazewell spoke at the state capitol in Albany on Wednesday to help commemorate this significant victory. After remarks from activists, organizational leaders, and lawmakers, a strategy session was held to discuss what comes next for democracy reform organizing in the state of New York.
Over twenty municipalities from across the state including Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, Mt. Vernon, Ithaca and New York City have passed resolutions supporting an amendment to the constitution. Moreover, since 2010 — the year of the Citizens United decision — nearly 700 cities and towns nationally have passed resolutions calling for an amendment and more than five million petition signatures have been gathered in support.
People in this country want a government that represents them and their interests. In New York and across the nation, poll after poll shows that reforming our big money system is a top priority for Americans. Not only does this win help affirm the hard work and value of partnerships on the ground between activists, organizations and lawmakers, it helps drive a national narrative that the days of Citizens United are numbered.
As the Democratic and Republican platform drafting committees gear up in advance of the party conventions, PFAW joined other national democracy organizations this week in submitting letters calling for the committees to include a comprehensive package of reform measures to fight big money in politics in the platforms.
Specifically, the groups called for the policy reforms outlined in the “Fighting Big Money” agenda — which was released by 13 reform organizations last year — to be incorporated. These measures include: a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United, small donor public financing, a restoration of the Voting Rights Act, increased disclosure of political spending, and stronger enforcement of existing campaign finance rules.
The letters note that the presidential candidates have talked about the need to reform our big money system throughout their campaigns, and polling consistently shows that voters of all political backgrounds agree. With an overwhelming majority of Americans frustrated with our out-of-balance political system, incorporating a comprehensive reform agenda within the party platforms is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
It’s no secret that the Supreme Court’s misguided Citizens United decision in 2010 opened the floodgates for an influx of money into our elections. But a new report released today by PFAW and six other organizations highlights what else it did: energize a movement to fight big money in politics that’s made real progress in the six years since the decision was handed down.
As the report notes, since 2010:
As the 2016 presidential race sees an increasing focus on the problem of big money in politics, the magnitude of our country’s current crisis can make progress seem unlikely, or even impossible. But as this report outlines, change is already happening in cities and states across the country, as people organize in their own communities for solutions to make sure that our democracy is working for everyone – not just for billionaires and corporations.
You can read the full report here.
We just won an important victory in our fight to create a democracy that is of, by and for the people. Earlier this week, Initiative 735, calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United and get big money out of politics, was certified by the Washington Secretary of State, meaning that after months of petition gathering the people of Washington state will be able to officially weigh in at the ballot box come November on the influence of big money in politics.
PFAW members were among those that played a decisive role in this effort, participating in phone banks, sign-on letters, and signature gathering efforts that led to this exciting accomplishment. Getting Initiative 735 on the ballot was no small feat; as recently as December more than 50,000 signatures remained to be collected. Yet due to the hard work put forth by the WAmend coalition, along with support from PFAW members and many allies, we collected enough signatures so that Washington has the opportunity to become the 17th state to support a constitutional amendment overturning Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United. Such an amendment is critical to getting big money out of politics, and members of Congress, major reform groups and millions of Americans agree.
Public opinion is clear: voters support campaign finance reform, and when given the chance to vote in favor of it, they do. Just this past November, voters in Seattle and Maine passed measures that put in place or strengthened programs to amplify the voices of ordinary people in elections, and to provide opportunities for candidates who want to be competitive in fundraising without being beholden to a few big donors. On the amendment front, more than 680 towns and cities have passed resolutions supporting an amendment to the Constitution, in addition to the sixteen states that have already done so.
While getting Initiative 735 on the ballot is a significant breakthrough, the work is far from over. We need to win this at the polls in November. Voters in Washington state now have the power to be next in line when it comes to taking a stand for our democracy. While big money continues to pour into the 2016 elections, initiatives like this one remind us that our system is ultimately still accountable to “We the People.”
In an interview released last week with Susan Peters of KAKE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Wichita, Kansas, Charles Koch shared his top factor in supporting 2016 candidates:
Koch said, “The number one thing I would look at in supporting anyone in politics: Are they for the first amendment? Are they for freedom of speech?”
“So, do you consider your donations freedom of speech?” [Peters] asked.
“Absolutely, they are,” he said.
That the number one criteria of a man whose network plans to spend hundreds of millions on next year’s elections is whether they are “for the First Amendment” – that is, a radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment to prohibit Americans from effectively addressing the corrosive effect of money on our democracy – speaks volumes about the way the power of those already on top is preserved and expanded in our country. Koch, one of the wealthiest people in the country, already holds unparalleled influence in politics through the extraordinary sums of money flooding our elections from the Koch-led network, Koch Industries, and the Kochs themselves. And now, Koch’s top priority for whether he will bankroll future candidates is, in effect, whether they support his ability to continue to spend unlimited sums of money to buy elections.
This exchange is Exhibit A on the extent to which our campaign finance system is utterly broken. With our lawmakers unable to set commonsense limits on money in elections in the wake of decisions like Citizens United, Charles Koch is free to pour unlimited amounts of cash into our democracy. And he’s free to make a condition of his financial support a commitment to perpetuating that broken system.
It’s no wonder that 85 percent of Americans think we need a complete overhaul of our country’s campaign finance system. Without it, a handful of billionaires can continue to set the agenda for all of us – even when it’s an agenda targeting the rights and interests of most Americans.
Following an outcry from a range of local and national leaders, including PFAW president Michael Keegan, Connecticut legislators withdrew a plan yesterday that would have cut funding for the state’s clean elections law.
Connecticut’s landmark program is a model for the country, one that has allowed people to run for office and become elected officials even if they don’t have access to special interest money or wealthy backers. When the proposed attack on clean elections was announced, the pushback was swift. A cohort of young Connecticut lawmakers, many of whom are members of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, spoke out against the proposal in a letter. They highlighted the clean election program’s success in allowing young people to compete in the state’s elections “based on policy positions and ideas” rather than “who has access to the biggest donors.” PFAW members in Connecticut made calls to their state legislators and asked them to reject any plan to undermine clean elections. State groups like Common Cause Connecticut and ConnPIRG rallied against it, and former Gov. Jodi Rell, who signed the landmark reform into law, spoke out against attempts to “turn aside” the program “many of us worked so hard to put in place to prevent political corruption scandals.”
That the proposal was withdrawn after just three days is a win not only for the state of Connecticut, but for the national movement to fight big money in politics. From clean elections victories in Seattle and Maine earlier this month to yesterday’s win in Connecticut, it’s clear that policies to help lessen the influence of big money in politics are popular, valued, and people will fight for them.
This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
Ninety-five years ago today, we added an amendment to the U.S. Constitution saying that women have a right to vote in our elections. While today women's suffrage seems like a no-brainer to everyone -- except maybe Ann Coulter -- it was not an inevitability that simply fell into place. Women were not "given" the right to vote. It was an amendment that women fought for, tooth and nail, for more than 70 years in every state across the country
In a 2010 piece about the suffrage movement, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote that "behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time." It was a painstaking process of organizing, state by state, that ultimately led to the 19th Amendment.
It's not a fast process to amend the Constitution -- just ask Susan B. Anthony, who organized for decades and didn't live to see the passage of the women's suffrage amendment. It shouldn't be easy to change our country's guiding document. But we have a history of passing amendments, when necessary, to make our democracy more inclusive, and often to correct serious harm done by the Supreme Court. The women's suffrage amendment overturned a 1875 decision that held women didn't have a right to vote. In all, seven of the 17 constitutional amendments adopted since the Bill of Rights have reversed damaging Supreme Court decisions that threatened popular democracy.
Today we're facing another serious threat to our democracy: Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United.
In the wake of decisions allowing unlimited spending to influence elections, money has inundated our political system like never before. 2014 was the most expensive midterm in history, but with fewer donors than in past elections. The 2016 presidential election is already on its way toward eclipsing all previous records. We're seeing more and more money from fewer and fewer donors, and it's taking a real toll on the functioning of our system.
There is a nationwide movement pushing for a constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and take our political process back from the tremendous influence of big corporations and moneyed interests. Like the women's suffrage movement, it's a slow process of building support city by city, state by state, one conversation at a time. So far 16 states and 650 cities and towns have gone on record in support of an amendment, and momentum continues to build.
The campaign for an amendment, like the Democracy For All amendment being considered in Congress, is grounded in simple ideas: we should be able to set reasonable limits on money in elections. The size of your wallet shouldn't determine the strength of your voice. Our elected officials should be paying attention to the needs and priorities of everyday Americans rather than following a political agenda set by wealthy special interests.
On Women's Equality Day we celebrate the expansion of political rights almost a century ago. It was an expansion based on the recognition that our political system is for all of us. But as the foundation of representative democracy is threatened by an overwhelming influx of money in elections -- to the point where all of us can no longer be heard in our democracy -- we are called to amend the Constitution again.
Today PFAW and 11 other organizations released “Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Agenda,” a money in politics reform agenda directed at 2016 presidential candidates. The memo details a specific set of policies and encourages candidates to commit to supporting them.
Goals of the agenda include amplifying the voices of everyday Americans through meaningful contribution limits, real-time disclosure of political contributions, overturning cases like Citizens United through the Democracy For All constitutional amendment, and enforcing existing campaign finance laws to help ensure that money is not allowed to overshadow the priorities of the people.
According to the agenda:
The size of your wallet should not determine the strength of your political voice. But, in a long series of decisions beginning with Buckley v. Valeo and escalating with Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court has cemented a flawed reading of our Constitution that strips the ability of We the People to impose common sense limits on election spending.
"Fighting Big Money, Empowering People” has been distributed to every announced 2016 candidate, many of whom have already voiced their support for fighting big money in elections. It’s time to move from rhetoric toward a commitment to specific, comprehensive solutions.
You can share the graphic below to show your solidarity with getting big money out of politics and returning power to everyday Americans. Together we can make a democracy where everyone participates, everyone’s voice is heard, and everyone plays by fair, common-sense rules.
Last week the fight against big money in politics received renewed, and passionate, support from Vice President Joe Biden. During a speech to young activists at the Make Progress summit on July 16th, Biden issued a call to action:
"We can do something about the corrosive impact of massive amounts of money. We can demand that the people we support don't yield to millionaires and billionaires. [Instead, they can] take their money in limited amounts, but what are we doing?"
The Obama administration has already declared its support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United (2010), but the Vice President called for a more immediate form of action: holding candidates accountable. "Folks, we ought to start in our own party. You ought to be demanding of all of us, all of us, because at least in our own party fights among ourselves, in primaries, that we adhere to a policy that doesn't rest on millionaires and billionaires."
This was a speech tailored to mobilize activists who have been part of a slow fight since 2010. Although progress has been made, with over 650 cities, 16 states, and 73% of Americans in support of a constitutional amendment, we have yet to see any real change in the way campaigns are funded. The 2016 presidential race is already seeing the effects of Super PAC funding and that influence will only continue to grow.
Biden clearly intended to inspire a new generation of activists by focusing on what the attendees themselves could do to help fix the system, saying, “If you're ever going to be involved in public service this is the time to do it, because things are changing.”
Hopefully the Vice President’s passion and optimism is an indication of the change that is coming in our campaign finance system. As Vice President Biden put it, the current system of auctioning our elections to the highest bidder is “a hell of a way to run a democracy."
Yesterday 130 senators and representatives urged President Obama to issue an executive order requiring companies that receive government contracts to disclose their political spending. A letter signed by more than one hundred representatives highlighted the lack of transparency in our current system and the important steps the president can take to help fix this:
Taxpayers have a right to know where their money is spent and you have the power to ensure that the American people can obtain this information. With public funds come public responsibilities, and any company receiving federal tax dollars should be required by executive order to fully disclose their political spending in a timely and accessible manner.
A letter signed by 26 senators echoed this call, arguing that an executive order would help restore confidence in our political system:
In our view, campaign finance disclosure is another issue that demands immediate action to restore the public’s faith in our democracy.
It’s not just members of Congress who are calling on the president to act. More than 83,000 PFAW members and supporters have signed our petition to the president urging him to issue an executive order. Several thousand more contacted their members of Congress asking them to sign on to the letters sent yesterday.
Right now corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, and they can do so in secret by funneling that spending though “dark money” groups. But if President Obama were to issue an executive order, some of the nation’s biggest corporations – like Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, and any other government contractor – would have to disclose their political spending.
President Obama himself has called for a more transparent and accountable democracy. In his State of the Union address in January, he criticized “dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter” and called for a “better politics.” Now is the president’s chance to help create that “better politics.”
This week Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge rejected a proposed 2016 ballot initiative that seeks to increase disclosure in election spending and support an amendment to overturn Supreme Court cases like Citizens United. Groups leading the effort, including the Arkansas Democracy Coalition, People For the American Way and other national allies, plan to resubmit the ballot initiative language today, as the objections given by the attorney general are minor and can be easily addressed. Once submitted the attorney general will have ten business days to respond with her decision.
The rejection has generated a flurry of media attention and comes in the wake of a series of events in support of the initiative held last week in Little Rock. As PFAW and allies prepare to potentially launch a full-scale ballot initiative campaign, the decision of the Arkansas Attorney General remains an obstacle in the path of making Arkansas the 17th state to pass a resolution in support of a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics.
Paul Spencer, Chairman of Regnat Populus, a convening organization of the Arkansas Democracy Coalition, said in a news release the group would revise the measure and submit a fifth version.
“The people of Arkansas deserve the opportunity to vote on these important issues,” he said. “We intend to respond to the very few points the attorney general has raised and trust that the office will not find any further reasons to block the campaign to put this on the ballot.”
Last September, a majority of the Senate voted in support of the Democracy For All Amendment, a proposal that would overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and let lawmakers put commonsense limits on money in elections.
Building off that progress, this week activists in more than 12 states delivered petitions to their House and Senate members asking them to support the Democracy For All Amendment. As wealthy special interests prepare to pour billions into the 2016 elections, ordinary Americans aren’t just shaking their heads. They are signing petitions, organizing events, lobbying their elected officials, and pushing for change.
In California, local leaders delivered 311,950 petitions – all signed by Californians who support an amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United – to Rep. Tony Cardenas. Their raised fingers represent the fight to protect the promise of “one person, one vote.”
In New York, activists did the same at the office of Rep. Yvette Clark.
One Maryland activist even hand-delivered his petitions directly to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.
A number of local leaders in New Hampshire came out to deliver thousands of petitions to Sen. Kelly Ayotte...
…which caught the attention of local media.
All in all, more than five million Americans have signed petitions in support of a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. Grassroots leaders across the country are going to keep up the pressure on their elected officials until support for the amendment in Congress reflects the overwhelming support among constituents.
This week PFAW staff joined members of the Arkansas Democracy Coalition to kick off a 2016 ballot initiative campaign to increase disclosure in election spending and support a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court cases like Citizens United. The series of events, including a performance showcasing the story of legendary campaign finance activist Doris “Granny D” Haddock and a march for democracy through downtown Little Rock, culminated with a press conference on the steps of the state capitol building.
Speakers included Paul Spencer of Regnat Populus, a convening organization of the Arkansas Democracy coalition; Rep. Clarke Tucker, a member of the Arkansas state legislature; Rhana Bazzini, an 83-year-old woman who has marched hundreds of miles in the tradition of Granny D to promote campaign finance reform; and Rio Tazewell, the Government By the People campaign coordinator at People For the American Way.
The Arkansas Democracy Coalition, in partnership with PFAW and other national allies, has submitted ballot language awaiting approval by the Arkansas Attorney General. Upon approval, a signature gathering campaign will launch to collect the 70,000 names needed to get the resolution on the ballot. If passed, the resolution would make Arkansas the 17th state on record in support of an amendment to get big money out of politics.
At the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend, President Obama delivered 20 minutes of his trademark dry humor, working in jabs at Michele Bachmann, Joe Biden, climate change deniers in Congress, and himself, to name a few. Perhaps some of the most pertinent jokes of the evening came about halfway into his speech, when he poked fun at the 2016 GOP presidential field, the Koch brothers and the influence of big money in politics.
“Soon the first presidential contest will take place, and I for one cannot wait to see who the Koch brothers pick,” President Obama joked. “It’s exciting… the winner gets a billion dollar war chest. The runner up gets to be the bachelor on the next season of The Bachelor.”
“I mean, seriously – a billion dollars,” the president continued. “From just two guys. Is it just me or does that feel a little excessive?”
The president making these pointed jokes is the latest example of a growing cultural awareness of the problems stemming from big money in politics. With presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Sen. Bernie Sanders all in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, this issue is rapidly ripening for broader public discussion.