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.
At an event with a local television station in New Hampshire this weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham was asked a question about what he would do to fight big money in politics. In his response, Graham pointed to the need for a constitutional amendment to address the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United:
Well, Citizens United has gotta be fixed. Y'all agree with that? You're gonna need a constitutional amendment to fix this problem. I was for McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that provisions in McCain-Feingold basically no longer apply.
You're gonna get sick of watching TV in New Hampshire. So the next President of the United States needs to get a commission of really smart people and find a way to create a constitutional amendment to limit the role of super PACs because there's gonna be like $100M spent on races in New Hampshire — which'll be good for this TV station — ripping everybody apart. You don't even know who the people are supplying the money, you don't even know their agenda. Eventually we're gonna destroy American politics with so much money in the political process cause they're going to turn you off to wanting to vote. [emphasis added]
This is not the first time Sen. Graham has spoken out against the big money takeover of our elections. In March, Bloomberg’s David Weigel wrote about a comment Graham made to a voter — again, in New Hampshire — about his desire to see some “control” over money in politics so it won’t “destroy the political process.”
While voicing support for an amendment is important, when the Senate voted in September on the Democracy for All Amendment, a proposal that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and help get big money out of politics, Sen. Graham voted against it.
So here’s a follow-up question for Sen. Graham: Will you back up your words with action? Will you work with your colleagues in Congress who are already pushing for an amendment and help tackle the issue of big money in politics?
In a wide-ranging interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow released this week, Warren Buffett had some strong words about Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that have handed increasing political power to the super-rich. Responding to a question about income inequality, Buffett raised the issue of money in elections:
With Citizens United and other decisions that enable the rich to contribute really unlimited amounts, that actually tilts the balance even more toward the ultra-rich…The unlimited giving to parties, to candidates, really pushes us more toward a plutocracy. They say it’s free speech, but somebody can speak 20 or 30 million times and my cleaning lady can’t speak at all.
Watch the interview clip here:
This afternoon activists from PFAW and ally groups participated in a petition delivery at the White House calling on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring corporations that receive government contracts to disclose their political spending. More than 550,000 petition signatures were delivered in support of this executive order, collected by a collaborative effort of more than 50 organizations.
In addition to leaders from organized labor, civil rights, environmental and consumer protection groups, PFAW Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks (pictured below), was one of the individuals to speak at the event. Highlighting the fact that transparency is essential to accountability, Mr. Brooks and other speakers reiterated the strong message sent by the half a million petition signers.
President Obama has shared his support for reform on numerous occasions. Most recently, in his State of the Union address this January, the president called attention to the issue by speaking out against “dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.” Obama went on to call for a “better politics.”
Rallies like the one held in Washington today also occurred in nearly 60 cities across 28 states, all encouraging the president to use his authority and issue an executive order to help bring about that “better politics.”
Have you added your name to the petition yet?
Today, April 2nd, marks the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. FEC. The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to remove limits on the total amount of spending an individual could contribute over a two year period to a federal level candidates, parties, or political action committees. Previously, the law limited the amount of money an individual could spend to $48,600 for individual candidates or $74,600 to a party or political action committee over a biannual period. The plaintiff in the case, Shaun McCutcheon, claimed that the limit on political spending was a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Using a severely cramped definition of the type of corruption that campaign finance limitations can legitimately address, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “Congress may target only a specific type of corruption—‘quid pro quo’ corruption . . . Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties”. The court, agreeing with McCutcheon, said that having limits on aggregate spending and campaign contributions was unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment.
The impact the McCutcheon v. FEC decision had on the 2014 elections was enormous. There was no longer an aggregate restriction on the amount of money an individual could give to candidates, parties and political committees. One of the biggest impacts of the court’s decision was the expansion of joint fundraising committees as fundraising tools. Joint committees are committees where candidates can combine their separate committees, party committees, and PAC’s into one single committee that fundraises together. As a result, nearly four billion dollars was given to candidates, parties, and political action committees combined, the most money ever spent in any midterm election. In 2014, out of the ten Senate races where the most money was spent on candidates, six of them finished within a ten point margin of victory, while in the ten House races where the most money was spent on candidates in 2014, seven of them ended within a five point margin of victory.
The McCutcheon decision has solidified the need for a constitutional amendment because big donors can now give virtually unrestricted amounts of money to influence elections. This money is used to produce television ads for or against candidates, send out direct mail attacking opponents, and to boost a candidate’s own credentials. Such dependence on campaign cash results in our elected officials becoming further beholden to the big donors interests instead of their constituents.
Fortunately, a nonpartisan movement is growing to get big money out of politics and overturn Supreme Court decisions like McCutcheonand Citizens United. Sixteen states, over 600 towns and cities, and over five million people have already gone on the record in support of a constitutional amendment that levels the political playing field and reduce the influence big money in our political system.
While likely presidential candidates chase billionaires they hope will bankroll their campaigns, activists in states across the country are ramping up a very different kind of campaign: grassroots organizing to restore some common sense to the rules governing money in elections. In March alone, we’ve seen significant victories in the movement to get big money out of politics.
Last week, following sustained advocacy by PFAW activists and allies, the New Hampshire Senate unanimously passed a bill in favor of a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC. If it passes in the House, New Hampshire will become the 17th state calling for an amendment. PFAW’s New Hampshire Campaign Coordinator Lindsay Jakows, who has been leading our on-the-ground effort in the state, said the vote shows that “our state senators are listening to, and responding to, the voices of their constituents.” And after passing 67 town resolutions in support of an amendment – including 11 just this month – the voices of New Hampshire constituents on this issue are crystal clear.
On the other side of the country, local leaders in Washington and Montana are also making important strides. Earlier this month, Washington’s state Senate unanimously passed a disclosure bill that would expose the spending of some of the largest political donors. PFAW activists in the state made calls to their senators, urging them to vote for the bill to strengthen transparency in Washington’s politics. And in Montana a disclosure bill that would help shine a light on “dark money” in state elections passed in the state House this weekend following calls from PFAW activists.
All of these victories share the same core ingredient: people power.
The sustained drumbeat of calls and emails from local advocates, which led to important wins in three states just this month, show what’s possible when grassroots leaders organize to take their democracy back from corporations and billionaires.
This op-ed was originally published at OtherWords.com.
If 2014 was the “Year of Dark Money” in elections, then 2016 is likely to be the “Year of Way, Way More Dark Money” — that is, unless something big changes soon.
One of the most troubling aspects of the explosion of big money in politics in recent years is the rapid rise in spending by groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors.
Right now, corporations and super-rich political donors like the Koch brothers can funnel millions into elections through groups that hide their identities, leaving voters and candidates unable to tell who’s behind the attack ads they buy in bulk, or what their agendas are.
More than $600 million of this so-called “dark money” has already been poured into our federal elections, and that’s only going to increase as we ramp up for the next presidential race.
Americans aren’t happy about this.
When President Barack Obama called in January for a “better politics” where “we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter,” he wasn’t just speaking for himself.
He was tapping into a deep-seated unease among everyday Americans who know that our political system can’t work for us when it’s awash in millions of dollars of untraceable money.
But President Obama can do more than simply call attention to the problem. He can take a big step toward fixing it by issuing an executive order requiring companies with government contracts to disclose their political spending.
That would mean that many of the nation’s biggest corporations — like Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Chrysler, and Verizon, just to name a few — would have to let the American people know about their political spending. That would turn some of that dark money into plain old “money.”
As The Washington Post editorial board wrote earlier this year, disclosure is “the backbone of accountability.” The public needs to be able to follow the money trail, see who’s behind political spending, and call them out when they don’t like what they see.
Even the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate political spending with its 2010 Citizens United decision, has underscored the need for disclosure. Transparency, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the ruling, “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Today, only one-fourth of the country’s largest government contractors disclose their contributions to outside groups. That means that many of the corporations receiving the biggest government contracts — from taxpayer money — are likely doing a great deal of secret spending to influence elections.
President Obama is right: Ordinary Americans are tired of being pulled “into the gutter.” We’re tired of seeing corporations rig our political system with untold amounts of money from undisclosed sources.
The White House should issue an executive order to let voters see for themselves who’s trying to buy political influence to distort our democracy.
What are these corporations trying to hide? And why should We the People hand over our taxpayer money to help them hide it?
On Tuesday the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal revealed that in 2012, the Online Consumers Network, an “arm of the online payday loan empire industry,” gave $200,000 to two dark money groups connected to top House Republicans during the industry’s push to roll back the power of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In other words, two years after the Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited outside spending to influence elections, payday loan interests were funneling dark money political spending to benefit officials who could help in their efforts to fight oversight and regulation.
While this is far from surprising in light of the current state of our campaign finance laws, it flies in the face of how regulation should work. From the chemical industry ramping up political spending as Congress takes up a bill overhauling the regulation of chemicals, to the payday loan industry throwing money against oversight efforts, industry interests should never be driving the legislative or regulatory process. The public good should be.
Fighting to make governmental action about protecting ordinary Americans rather than protecting the bottom line of major corporations shouldn’t be controversial. It’s simply expecting our political system to work as it was intended: for the people.
On Monday, Wisconsin became the 25th so-called “right to work” state when Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law that undermines workers’ rights and is likely to reduce wages in the state.
This divisive bill, which would have more accurately been called a “right to work for less” bill, was fast-tracked by Republican leaders despite being met with intense resistance and had the support of major right-wing funders. Two outside groups in favor of “right to work” legislation, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, spent over $5.5 million in support of Scott Walker’s reelection bid. Analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found that since 2013, Republican legislators in the state have accepted “$26 in contributions from business interests for every $1 in labor contributions.” And the right-wing Bradley Foundation has given millions to groups promoting “right to work” bills, including to a number of groups in Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin and across the country, when people can “follow the money” and see who is bankrolling elected officials and what their agenda is, it changes how they evaluate the bills being considered. But today it’s not always possible to follow the money. Major corporations can funnel an unlimited amount of money through “dark money” groups to influence the political process, and they can do so secretly.
President Obama can, and should, take a big step to shine a light on dark money by issuing an executive order requiring companies that contract with the federal government, companies like Verizon and Lockheed Martin and Exxon Mobil, to disclose their political spending. No matter the issue, voters deserve to know who is trying to buy influence in their state or national government.
Yesterday People For the American way joined more than fifty other organizations in sending a letter to President Obama asking him to issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose all of their political spending.
Right now, corporations with government contracts are able to funnel unlimited sums of dark money to influence the elections of those who can put pressure on the officials deciding who is awarded future contracts. Contracts should be awarded to those best for the job, not those who can shell out the most political cash.
But with the stroke of a pen, President Obama could require that government contractors disclose their political spending. This would increase transparency and accountability in our democracy and bring us closer to the “better politics” the president called for in his State of the Union address – a politics in which we “spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”
And we are indeed drowning in dark money. In 2014's ten most competitive Senate contests, more than 70 percent of outside money spent in support of the winner was from dark money groups.
As the letter notes,
Six years into your presidency, and five years after the Supreme Court issued its tragically misguided ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, we’re now living in a Wild West campaign spending world… Against this backdrop, it is imperative that you act.
On Tuesday night, Chicago residents approved a ballot initiative in support of limiting the influence of big money in politics by an overwhelming margin of 79 percent to 21 percent. The measure, titled the Fair Elections Illinois ballot initiative, calls on the Chicago City Council and the Illinois state legislature to establish small donor matching fund systems for local and state campaigns. Activists worked with local organizations to coordinate phone banks, robocalls, and distribution of campaign literature in an attempt to reach thousands of voters. The measure was also endorsed by over a dozen organizations, several city alderman, all mayoral candidates, and the Chicago Sun-Times.
People For the American Way is proud to have fought alongside the activists who worked hard to get this measure passed in Chicago, in addition to the thousands of other leaders all across the country pushing to get big money out of our political system.
In an interview with Vox released today, President Obama expressed his support for constitutional remedies to our country’s worsening money in politics problem.
The president said:
I would love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to, and maybe even improve it.
This isn’t the first time the president has weighed in on the push for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. In 2012 during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, President Obama made a splash when he said that “over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United.” As the Vox article notes, today’s comments go a step beyond his previous remarks.
Agree with the president? Share our graphic and show your support:
You can watch the full interview with President Obama here:
PFAW activists joined with allies from Public Citizen, Open Democracy, and others last Thursday at public hearings on New Hampshire House and Senate bills calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
About 50 supporters of a constitutional amendment attended each hearing, creating standing room only and overflow in the small room reserved for the House bill hearing.
Speakers included small business owners, activists who passed local town resolutions in favor of an amendment, and high school students. Not a single person testified in opposition to the proposed legislation, underscoring the deep support among Americans of all backgrounds for fixing our big money system.
The bills (HB 371 and SB 136) call for the state legislature to recommend a constitutional amendment to the state’s congressional delegation, as well as for public hearings in geographically diverse areas across the state to decide the exact language for such an amendment.
A committee in the New Hampshire House will vote on the bill in an executive session on Wednesday afternoon, while the appropriate Senate committee has not yet set a date for a vote. PFAW activists and allies will be back at the state capitol next week for a lobby day to meet with key representatives and senators on Wednesday, February 4th.
Interested in joining us? For more information and to RSVP, email Lindsay Jakows at email@example.com.
Sixteen states, 600 towns and cities, dozens of nonprofit reform organizations, and more than five million Americans are not the only ones calling for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. This installment of our #DemandDemocracy video blog features Bryan McGannon with the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) discussing how big money in politics is bad for competition and bad for small business.
As Bryan points out:
“Our campaign finance system subverts competition by allowing powerful industries and corporations to influence legislation that pampers them and hampers small business.”
According to a report published by the Mainstreet Alliance and ASBC, 88 percent of small business owners believe that money in politics is having a negative impact on our democracy, and a strong majority (66 percent) say that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision has been bad for small businesses. Since a vast majority of the money that flows into elections comes from a tiny fraction of mega-wealthy donors, most businesses and individuals alike get priced out of participating in the electoral process.
PFAW’s #DemandDemocracy video blog series is a collection of short videos that highlight how big money in politics affects — and often stalls progress on — a range of other critical issues.
On Monday the push for the Democracy For All Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and allow legislators to put reasonable limits on money in elections, became a bipartisan effort in Congress when Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) signed on as a cosponsor of the legislation.
While this is a historic step that deserves celebration, in many ways it is long overdue. Washington is the only place where the fight to get big money out of politics is a partisan issue, and it hasn’t always been that way.
Similar amendments proposed in the past have found bipartisan support in Congress, including from Rep. Jones. Republican elected officials across the country have been advocating at the local and state level to get big money out of politics. In fact, a recent report from Free Speech For People highlights the more than 100 Republican officials nationwide who favor an amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
Among voters, it’s also a bipartisan movement, with Americans of all political stripes speaking out against a democracy unduly influenced by corporations and billionaires. A 2014 poll found that in Senate battleground states, almost three in four voters favor a constitutional amendment to undo the harm of decisions like Citizens United, including majorities in “even the reddest states.” This support did not waver among Republican voters polled: amendment supporters outnumbered opponents by a 26 percent margin.
Still, Rep. Jones’ decision to become a cosponsor of the Democracy For All Amendment is an important step forward. Money in politics is an issue that affects all of us, and one that Americans of all political backgrounds feel strongly about. It’s only fitting that our federal elected officials in both parties listen to the voices of their constituents and join the movement to take our democratic process back from the grips of wealthy special interests.