In our current political landscape, moneyed interests frequently use their financial leverage to impact policy. For instance, Wall Street banks lobbied against a bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren that would help relieve students of their loan debt. For every dollar the fossil fuels industry spends on lobbying, it receives $103 in government subsidies. Now in New Hampshire, special interests are looking to change the state’s longstanding fiscal policy in their favor.
New Hampshire Representative Timothy Smith credits the state’s ability to stay afloat financially without imposing a sales or income tax with its substantial business taxes, which bring in sizable amounts of revenue. However, that might change with the introduction of a bill by 13 Republican senators that would significantly lower the business tax, creating a hole of $90 million in the budget. Rep. Smith connected the introduction of this legislation to the fact that special interest groups, many of which would benefit from this change, spent over $900 thousand in New Hampshire’s legislative elections last year.
Not surprisingly, New Hampshire residents are unhappy with the growing trend of big money influencing politics. Over two-thirds of the state’s voters believe that a constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United should be implemented. Sixty-nine state localities have passed resolutions calling for such an amendment, and over 120 small businesses are hosting Stamp Stampede stations, where patrons can stamp phrases like “not to be used for bribing politicians” on their bills.
Rep. Smith co-sponsored a bill that called for an amendment to get big money out of politics, which passed in the New Hampshire House with bipartisan support. In addition, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan dismissed the business tax reductions as “unpaid for tax cuts to big corporations” that would “put corporate special interest ahead of New Hampshire's families.” Officials in the state government are listening to their constituents’ concerns about the harmful effects of big money in politics.
“Our constituents are trying to tell us something. They’re tired of their government serving lobbyists rather than citizens,” said Rep. Smith.
Voters Are Concerned About the Influence of Big Money in 2016
Last week the Wall Street Journal and NBC published the results of a poll on various issues leading up to the 2016 presidential elections, showing that the influence of wealthy donors on elections is a growing concern among Americans.
Thirty-three percent of those surveyed say that the influence of wealthy donors is their biggest concern in the 2016 presidential race. Although the majority were Democrats, big money in politics was the issue with the most agreement between the two parties, only a seventeen percent gap separated Democrats and Republicans. The poll suggests that the influence of the wealthy is becoming less of a partisan issue, and more of a general anxiety for Americans when it comes to elections.
The poll also revealed that
“the influence of wealthy donors was the primary concern for independents.”
This can and should influence the positions of the 2016 candidates as they seek to win over swing voters. Whether the growing anxiety amongst Americans about big money in politics will lead to changes in campaign finance remains uncertain, but the heightened awareness may bring the issue to the forefront of the 2016 race.
PFAW activists and allies are continuing to pressure Sen. Kelly Ayotte for her reluctance to support a constitutional amendment that would overturn cases like Citizens United.
A group of New Hampshire activists, many of whom have worked to pass local resolutions in their towns in support of an amendment, met with Sen. Ayotte’s legal counsel in May to deliver over 12 thousand petitions in support of the Democracy For All Amendment— a federal constitutional amendment that would allow Congress and the states to set reasonable limits on money in elections.
Over a month later, her office has given no indication she will support the Democracy For All Amendment.
In previous public statements she has characterized a constitutional amendment as “dangerous.” And in a recent form letter to activists, Sen. Ayotte wrote,
By creating a "carve out" to the First Amendment that gives politicians the power to limit free speech and stifle political dissent, the Udall proposal jeopardizes all Americans' freedom of speech rights - and essentially says that our Founding Fathers got it wrong. It would also alter the First Amendment in ways that jeopardize more than political speech.
Of course, we know this issue isn’t about protecting free speech; it’s about everyone having an equal say in our elections and not having their own voices drowned out by a flood of big money.
In light of Sen. Ayotte’s clear refusal to recognize the influence of money in politics as stifling the voices of all Americans, PFAW activists and allies created photo petitions this weekend to send Sen. Ayotte a clear message about why 69 percent of New Hampshire voters support a constitutional amendment.
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.”
Since the 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for record-breaking levels of election spending, Americans have pushed for a change. According to a recent New York Times poll, 85 percent of Americans agree that the campaign finance system needs reform, from “fundamental changes” to a “complete overhaul.” Now Americans are going to their state and local governments to spearhead efforts to get money out of politics.
Over 125 bills regarding campaign spending have been introduced in 33 statehouses in the last few months, even in the conservative stronghold Texas. Some of these efforts have been bipartisan; Montana’s Democratic governor Steve Bullock collaborated with a Republican-controlled legislature to pass a bill that requires nonprofit “social welfare” groups to disclose their political spending.
“When somebody's hiding in the shadows and gut-shoots you, you have a right to know who's taking a shot at you,” said Republican Montana state senator Duane Ankely.
Americans are already working to fix the problem of big money in politics. More than 150 organizations have supported the Unity Statement of Principles which articulates the values underlying key solutions to ensure a democratic system of government where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone follows the same set of rules, and where everyone is held accountable. One important solution to the problem of big money’s influence in politics is a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and let the American people establish reasonable limits on election spending.
Sixteen states and more than 650 cities have passed resolutions urging Congress to adopt such an amendment. Activists in twelve states recently delivered petitions to their members of Congressmen asking them to support the amendment, and with 311,950 local petitions were delivered to district offices in California alone. Further, nearly three in four Americans support implementing a constitutional amendment. Presidential candidates, such as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and even Republican Lindsey Graham, have all spoken in favor of campaign finance reform. The movement to get money out of politics already enjoys bipartisan support at all levels of government, and the stage is set for even more momentum, particularly around an amendment, moving into 2016.
On June 4, Seth Meyers vocalized the growing frustration among Americans about the delayed candidacy announcement of Jeb Bush. On his talk show, Late Night with Seth Meyers, the host poked fun at Bush and the dysfunction of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), drawing attention to issues surrounding campaign finance.
Meyers is not the first to scrutinize Jeb Bush for his lack of clarity. A recent article in the New York Times explores the federal laws around candidacy, noting that “federal law makes anyone who raises or spends $5,000 in an effort to become president a candidate, and thus subject to fundraising, spending, and disclosure rules.” Yet because Bush has not declared as a candidate, he is not limited in the amount of money he can raise, and can continue to coordinate with his super PAC, Right to Rise, which he would not be able to do otherwise.
Jeb Bush’s antics are a good demonstration of the need for campaign finance reform. The majority of Americans agree that big money has too much influence on politics. But, as Seth Meyers indicated, the FEC is “dysfunctional,” even according to its own chairwoman, who has created a petition calling for new rules to regulate political spending. The FEC is meant to be a bipartisan organization, but that is also what causes its gridlock: the three Democrats and three Republicans cannot seem to agree on much of anything.
Two partner campaign finance reform groups, Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, have filed formal complaints with the FEC challenging the legality of Bush’s tactics. Regardless of whether or not the FEC takes action as a result of these complaints, Governor Bush plans to officially announce his candidacy on June 15th. Either way, our broken campaign finance system will no doubt continue to serve as punchlines leading into 2016, hopefully setting the stage for real reform.
With the 2016 national elections upcoming, wealthy donors supporting both parties are gearing up to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into the races; billionaires David and Charles Koch have already pledged to spend $889 million. But a report from Reuters shows that Americans, frustrated by the overwhelming influence of big money in politics, are organizing to fight back.
In the Philadelphia mayoral race, three billionaires spent $7 million to elect Anthony Hardy Williams. In response, unions and community groups rallied around his challenger, Jim Kenney, organizing a march to stop the wealthy donors from “buying [their] next mayor.” Technological developments are making such organization easier: the creators of Crowdpac, an app that lets entrepreneurs gather funding towards donations, say that they want the app to be used to organize small donors to counteract the effects of billionaire spending.
This is reflective of a wider trend in public opinion. Americans are sick of letting big money influence their elections; 84 percent say that money has too much influence in political campaigns today and nearly 3 in 4 Americans support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and limit campaign spending.
“There's growing public awareness about rich people trying to buy elections and that makes the task of winning all the more difficult," said Darrel West of the Brookings Institute.
Americans have organized at all levels of government to get big money out of politics. Activists have held rallies and marches devoted to the cause and demanded that their representatives in Congress take steps to reduce big money’s influence. Five million of them have signed a petition calling for a constitutional amendment to limit the amount of money spent in politics. Sixteen states and more than 650 cities have already called for an amendment.
President Obama is on board, and presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, Lindsey Graham, and Bernie Sanders have expressed support for a constitutional amendment. Clinton and Sanders have also emphasized the importance of nominating Supreme Court Justices who would restore balance to the Supreme Court and restore the American people’s ability to impose reasonable limits on money in politics.
The movement against big money in politics is gaining momentum as the election nears.
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.
Last week, Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed into law a sweeping campaign finance reform bill that represents a major bipartisan victory in the movement to get big money out of politics.
SB289 – the Montana Disclose Act – will require dark money groups to report their spending on state political races. The bill is a much-needed update to Montana’s campaign laws, and will help provide Montana voters with more information on the groups behind the political attack ads they see every election cycle.
During the state legislature’s debates on SB289, Montana PFAW members and other local activists lobbied their representatives, calling state representatives and urging them to support greater transparency in Montana’s politics. While signing the bill, Gov. Bullock announced that the state finally has a law “that mandates that every penny spent in our elections will be disclosed.”
“When it comes to Montanans as individuals having control of our elections, this is the most significant day in the last 112 years since Montanans passed the Corrupt Practices Act,” said Bullock.
SB289 passed with bipartisan support in both the State House and Senate. Montana’s victory is yet another indicator that big money’s threat to our democracy transcends party affiliation – and that money in politics is really only a partisan issue in Washington, DC.
When the Supreme Court struck down limits on outside spending in elections in the 2010 Citizens United case, critics pointed to a potentially huge public policy impact in issues ranging from environmental protection to tax policy to health care to voting rights.
But one impact of Citizens United has gone without as much public discussion as it deserves: It’s making it harder for criminal defendants to get a fair trial.
Last fall, the American Constitution Society released a report by two Emory University law professors illustrating that the big spending that Citizens United let loose in state judicial elections created a climate in which elected judges were more reluctant to side with defendants in criminal cases.
Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang found that outside groups seeking to influence judicial elections — usually for reasons unrelated to criminal justice policy — often relied on “Willie Horton” style attack ads implying that targeted judges were “soft on crime.” The proliferation of outside spending and the attack ads that the spending bought, they found, correlated with a decrease in the frequency with which elected state appellate judges ruled in favor of defendants in criminal cases.
“Unlimited independent spending is associated with, on average, a seven percent decrease in justices’ voting in favor of criminal defendants,” they wrote. “That is, the results predict that, after Citizens United, justices would vote differently and against criminal defendants in 7 out of 100 cases.”
Shepherd discussed her findings yesterday at a panel convened by ACS, along with retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Norman Reimer and Tanya Clay House of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Nelson, who was on the Montana Supreme Court when it famously ruled that Citizens United didn't apply to that state's unique history of corruption (Nelson dissented, saying the high court’s ruling applied to Montana, but took the opportunity to demolish the decision while he was at it), said he had lived first-hand the impact of big money in judicial races.
“The fact of the matter is that is when justices running for political office are attacked during their campaigns, it forces them to look over their shoulder constantly,” he said. “And I can tell you that from personal experience. You have to fight to make yourself vote the way the law requires you to vote. And most judges do. But it’s in these marginal cases where there’s a close call and perhaps the case should go to a defendant, it doesn’t go to the defendant.”
The groups spending money on judicial attack ads, he said, “really don’t give a damn about defendants’ rights. They really don’t care. What they want to do is to get somebody onto a court who marches in lockstep with their philosophy, or get somebody off the court that does not march in lockstep with their philosophy.”
Reimer sounded a similar note: “The fight is really about commercial interests. It’s usually about the plaintiffs’ bar versus the corporate interests, the unions, the conservatives. It’s about nothing to do with criminal justice. But because of the fear factor, that’s where you go after somebody.”
“I think we all need to understand and appreciate what’s really at risk here,” Nelson said. “And what’s really at risk is the fair, independent and impartial judicial system that most citizens in this country, and I think most lawyers in this country, simply take for granted. And if the dark money flows from Super PACS and the Koch brothers and RSLC and groups like them get control of the judiciary … That’s what this is all about: getting control of the third branch of government. If they get control of that third branch by spending their way to the top, then we’re going to lose that fair, impartial and independent judiciary that we’ve all come to expect and rely upon. Certainly criminal defendants are going to suffer immeasurably.”
Clay House pointed out that there is already “a different perception of the criminal justice system and judiciary among communities of color.” Pew found in 2013 that 68 percent of black Americans said they were “treated less fairly than whites” in the courts, while the majority of whites were oblivious to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Unchecked spending in judicial elections, the evidence shows, may be making that perception, and the reality, even worse.
From a mailman flying a gyrocopter to the Capitol to protest big money in politics, to Hillary Clinton making the issue a centerpiece of her campaign, to Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Lindsey Graham being asked about their stances on campaign finance reform at Q&A events, it’s clear that money in politics is shaping up to be a major issue in 2016. Yesterday The Washington Post’s Matea Gold reported on the grassroots push to spotlight the topic of big money’s influence on our democracy:
[F]ive years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — which held it was unconstitutional to ban independent political spending by corporations and unions, and helped set off a financial arms race — there are signs that politicians are beginning to confront a voter backlash.
….For those who feel strongly about it, the 2016 primaries and caucuses — and the up-close access they bring to the presidential contenders — offer a ripe opportunity to elevate the topic.
In New Hampshire, nearly 500 people have volunteered to attend public forums and press the White House hopefuls about money in politics, Weeks said.
In an interview aired Friday on National Public Radio, PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker underscored the importance of top candidates elevating this issue:
"When the leading candidate for president says she's going to make reducing the influence of money in politics one of the four pillars in her campaign, you know that that's going to be a major issue in 2016," Baker said. "So this is a very, very big deal."
While there are many issues that divide Americans, addressing the big-money takeover of our political system is not one of them. That both Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton expressed support for an amendment to get big money out of politics in the past two weeks underscores the fact that fighting to fix our broken democracy is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good politics – across the political spectrum.
With the movement to take back our democracy from wealthy special interests growing by the day, some of the country’s top political leaders are taking note and bringing the issue of money in politics front and center for 2016.
Yesterday presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed support for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics and said that campaign finance reform was going to be one of the four pillars of her campaign.
As PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker pointed out:
That Hillary Clinton will make the fight against big money in politics the centerpiece of her campaign is indicative of how much Americans care about this issue. She’s tapping into a deep-seated belief among people of all political stripes that we have to reclaim our democracy from corporations and billionaires. Americans are ready for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United, and ready for leaders who are going to make it a priority.
Amending the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United is a widely popular proposal with cross-partisan support. A July 2014 poll of Senate battleground states found that nearly three in four voters (73 percent) favor a constitutional amendment, including majorities “in even the reddest states.” In the five years since the Citizens United decision, local organizing has led 16 states and 650 cities and towns to support an amendment to overturn the decision and get big money out of politics. More than 5 million Americans have signed petitions in support of an amendment.