In his farewell address to the Senate today, newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted three causes of what he called a “dangerous but reversible” decline in our country’s democracy: “the decline of comity, the deluge of money, and the disregard for facts.”
A deluge of money in our democracy, indeed – and often outside, secret money at that. Twenty one state-by-state reports released this month by People For the American Way Foundation and U.S. PIRG analyzing spending totals from Super PACs, dark money groups, and out-of-state spending in 2012 down-ballot federal races found that on average, a majority of outside election money in these states came from Super PACs. And in every case, a vast majority came from organizations registered outside of the state.
John Kerry was right to draw attention to the dangerous influence of money on our democracy. When big money overwhelms our political system, it is hard to hear the individual voices of everyday Americans.
In 2011 comedian Stephen Colbert announced his plan to form a political action committee, noting that he believed in "the American dream."
"That dream is simple," he joked. "That anyone, no matter who they are, if they are determined, if they are willing to work hard enough, someday they could grow up to create a legal entity which could then receive unlimited corporate funds, which could be used to influence our elections."
While this may have been Stephen Colbert's satirical "American dream," this weekend we saw communities around the country pursuing a true American ideal -- a democracy of, by and for the people that is not undermined by unlimited corporate and special interest political spending. A democracy that encourages all people to participate. A democracy in which the voices of everyday Americans are not drowned out by massive -- and often secret -- outside spending in our elections, such as the out-of-state money that flooded down ballot federal races in the 2012 election cycle.
It is a fitting coincidence that this year, both Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC fell on the third weekend in January. Corporate money in politics and voter suppression are interrelated threats to the foundations of our democracy. That's why, under the banner of Money Out/Voters In, Americans carried out more than 100 "Day of Action" events in 33 states this past weekend, drawing attention to the appropriate juxtaposition of two of the most pressing issues facing our country.
In Wichita, Kansas, organizers held a mock trial to re-decide the damaging Citizens United decision. In cities including New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia and Buffalo, ministers led teach-ins on voter suppression and Citizens United from a faith perspective. In Lancaster, PA, they held Money Out/Voters In street theater. And in Richmond, California, activists marched to the Chevron refinery to demonstrate against the excesses of corporate power in our political system.
These organizers were building on a momentum to restore our democracy that has been gathering even more steam in recent months. On Election Day we saw Americans defying efforts to suppress their vote, standing in lines for hour upon hour to exercise their fundamental right as citizens. Despite the restrictions on early voting and voter ID laws targeting those who have traditionally faced disenfranchisement, the 2012 election saw historically high African American and Latino turnout. Youth voters defied all predictions and turned out in record numbers.
Election Day also saw organizers in cities and states across the country successfully push for legislative remedies to the influx of corporate and special interest money in our democracy. In Colorado, Amendment 65 -- an initiative instructing the state's congressional delegation to support a Constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United -- was approved, with more than seven in ten Colorado voters in favor of the amendment. Voters in Montana approved a similar initiative instructing their congressional delegation to propose a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. The measure was approved overwhelmingly. All in all, eleven states and over 350 local governments have passed legislative resolutions or ballot initiatives to overturn Citizens United.
Because, in fact, corporations are not human beings, and democracy is a system made for people. Americans are demonstrating in city after city that we understand this and that we demand solutions.
Stephen Colbert's satirical "dream" may be one of corporate political influence, but my dream -- and one that I share with the American people, as has been so clearly demonstrated in recent months -- is one of taking back our democracy from special interests and restoring political power to everyday Americans.
On a weekend that features both the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is a timely moment to "take the temperature" of our democracy. Dr. King once said, "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself." What is the status of that right today? Or, to pose a broader question: what is the status of our democracy?
In the past year I worked with a network of 1,100 African American churches and 7,000 pastors to educate, motivate, and turn out our congregations and communities on Election Day. We facilitated hundreds of thousands of voter registrations, made more than a million contacts and even transported over 27,000 people to the polls. While we are proud of the work accomplished this year, it is clear to me -- and to many who facilitated get out the vote work -- that our elections aren't working equally well for everyone. More often than not, those for whom they are not working are people of color.
One of the reasons is that Americans -- and especially Americans of color -- are questioning whether our voices can be heard over the noise of massive corporate and special interest political spending in the wake of Citizens United. In the last election, more than 1.3 billion dollars of outside money flooded the airwaves, and voters understand that politicians are paying close attention.
Last year the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law conducted a national survey on American's perceptions of Super PAC spending and the implications for our political system. An overwhelming majority of respondents (77 percent) agreed that members of Congress are "more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest." Americans are seeing that excessive special interest spending is overwhelming the voices and priorities of individual voters -- as well they should. I believe that this is especially true for people of color, many of whom are starkly aware of the reality of the lack of power, influence and opportunities often available to us politically.
And as Colorlines' Brentin Mock pointed out, that's all before we even set out to vote. Faith leaders on the ground all across the country who I worked with witnessed the effects of voter suppression tactics such as voter ID laws and early voting restrictions. We all remember seeing photographs of voters standing in six hour long lines until 2:00 am on election night, waiting to cast their ballots even after the presidential election had been called. And a number of new suppressive laws may go into effect this year.
A democracy in which Americans do not have a fair opportunity to have their voices heard -- whether through discriminatory voter suppression tactics or through the overwhelming influence of big money on the political system -- is not a democracy working as it should. It is a democracy in need of healing.
That's why organizers around the country are speaking out this weekend to bring attention to the interrelated attacks on our democracy today. Under the banner of Money Out/Voters In, organizers are hosting "Day of Action" events in more than 76 cities in 33 states. Some of the same faith leaders who devoted their time and energy to GOTV efforts are leading teach-ins this weekend about the dual threats of voter suppression and unlimited corporate and special interest money in politics. As African American faith leaders who value the ideals of justice and fairness, we believe it is our responsibility to advocate for a system that puts electoral power in the hands of everyday Americans rather than corporations.
Perhaps Elder Lee Harris of Jacksonville, Florida -- one of the African American faith leaders organizing voting efforts this fall -- put it best: "We've come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again."
What does Citizens United have to do with women’s health care? According to a decision last week from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, perhaps more than you may think.
Just a week after the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Hobby Lobby’s petition to prevent enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage provision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals made a ruling at odds with that decision. Last Friday the panel granted a motion for an injunction pending appeal to plaintiffs Cyril and Jane Korte who run Korte & Luitjohan Contractors, a construction company. The Kortes had argued that the contraception mandate of the ACA violated their right to religious freedom.
In other words, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided that – at least temporarily – the company does not have to comply with the Obama Administration’s rules that most employer-provided health care plans must cover birth control.
ThinkProgress’s Ian Millhiser points out that the Appeals Court cited Citizens United in their reasoning, a move that he finds “ominous.” Millhiser highlights a line from the decision – “That the Kortes operate their business in the corporate form is not dispositive of their claim. See generally Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010)” – before arguing that:
As a matter of current law, this decision is wrong. As the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” Lee established — with no justice in dissent — that religious liberty does not allow an employer to “impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees,” such as by forcing employees to give up their own rights because of the employer’s objections to birth control.
Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit’s citation to Citizens United is an ominous sign. Lee was decided at a time when the Court understood that corporations should not be allowed to buy and sell elections. That time has passed, and the precedents protecting against corporate election-buying were overruled in Citizens United. It is not difficult to imagine the same five justices who tossed out longstanding precedent in Citizens United doing the same in a case involving whether employers can impose their religious beliefs on their employees.
Circuit Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner also raised issues with the decision. In her dissent, she addressed the corporation issue head-on. She noted that:
...it is the corporation rather than the Kortes individually which will pay for the insurance coverage. The corporate form may not be dispositive of the claims raised in this litigation, but neither is it meaningless: it does separate the Kortes, in some real measure, from the actions of their company.
Similarly, our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Paul Gordon noted last month in reference to the Hobby Lobby decision that the question of where to draw the line in terms of government regulation of religious institutions and individuals is a tricky one. Still, he pointed out:
The requirement to provide certain health insurance for your employees – not for yourself, but for people you hire in a business you place in the public stream of commerce – seems a reasonable one.
Both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the 3rd anniversary of Citizens United v. FEC will take place this year on the weekend of January 19, 2013, and activists are preparing to draw attention to the appropriate juxtaposition of two of the most pressing issues facing our country. Progressives understand that the dual threats of money in politics and voter suppression are interrelated and threaten the foundations of American democracy, and that taking on one of those issues means taking on both. That’s why people are rallying together under the banner of “Money Out, Voters In” on and around January 19th to raise awareness to these threats and jumpstart 2013 campaigns that will address them.
To launch these efforts, People For the American Way hosted a webcast with co-chair of the Progressive Caucus Representative Keith Ellison that was viewed by activists across the country who had assembled in organizing meetings to strategize for their January 19th action.
Super PACs and corporate lobbyists, beware.
Earlier this month, organizations from around the country working to fight back against the influence of big money on our democracy gathered to share ideas and make plans for action. The conference, associated with the Money Out/Voters In Coalition – of which People For the American Way is a leading member – provided a forum to discuss Constitutional and legislative solutions to the growing problem of corporate influence in politics. As AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld described it:
“Last Saturday in Los Angeles saw the most detailed, ambitious and encouraging discussion of exactly how to approach campaign finance and lobbying reform that I’ve seen in two decades of reporting on the decline of American democracy.”
Conference-goers grounded their discussions in the notion that corporations should not have the same constitutional rights as people to spend money to influence elections. They noted that constitutional and other remedies are needed to prevent powerful and wealthy special interests from undermining our democracy.
And national polls have consistently found that Americans want solutions. Earlier this year, the Brennan Center for Justice found that three in four Americans “believe limiting how much corporations, unions, and individuals can donate to Super PACs would curb corruption.” Another recent poll found that nine Americans out of ten agree that there is too much corporate money in politics.
As People For the American Way’s Marge Baker put it:
“This is happening because the people want it to happen.”
It is clear that Americans realize we have a problem on our hands. And as movement leaders come together, float plans, and debate proposals, it is also clear that those who care about repairing our democracy will continue to fight back against corporate influence in politics until we as a country have enacted viable solutions.
The results of a recent PFAW and unPAC produced art contest are in: a panel of experts (including such luminaries as Shepard Fairey, designer of the famous 2008 ‘Hope’ poster and Jesse Dylan, creator of the ‘Yes We Can’ music video) chose the piece ‘Monopolistic’ by 21-year old Tennessean Landon Wix as winner of a $3,000 prize.
Titled ‘Art > Money,’ the contest’s purpose was to find a piece of art to serve as an iconic image for the need to keep big money out of the American electoral process. Art can play an important role in such a campaign: as Shepard Fairey says, “It’s about using art to push back against the existing power structures in our society and inspiring real change.” In this instance, the American people agree: 80% oppose the infamous Citizens United decision and favor restrictions on the amount of money corporations can spend on elections.
PFAW alerted and encouraged our members to promote the winning image, and as a result of our and other’s efforts, Wix’s image was shared across the country and on the internet by thousands of activists as part of a larger effort to spread awareness about this important issue.
To see more of Wix’s work, visit http://www.landonwix.webs.com/
Stumping in Iowa last year, Mitt Romney famously defended the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, declaring, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
But it turns out there’s one group that Romney thinks should be prohibited from spending money to influence elections: teachers’ unions. Speaking at a forum in New York, Romney expressed his wish for one specific campaign finance restriction:
The bigger problem, Romney said, is that "the person sitting across the table from them should not have received the largest campaign contribution from the teachers union themselves ... [It's] an extraordinary conflict of interest and something that should be addressed."
He later added that "we simply can't have" elected officials who have received large contributions from teachers sitting across from them at the bargaining table "supposedly" to represent the interests of children. "I think it's a mistake," Romney said. "I think we have to get the money out of the teachers unions going into campaigns. It's the wrong way for us to go. We've got to separate that."
Romney’s absolutely right that large campaign contributions and expenditures can improperly influence elected officials. But if he’s going to apply that standard to teachers, he needs to apply it to corporations as well.
People for the American Way is proud to announce a cluster of new Young Elected Progressives endorsee primary victories this week:
On 11 September, Bryan Townsend won the Democratic primary for the state senate seat in Delaware's 11th District; he defeated incumbent Anthony Deluca and will run against Republican Evan Queitsch on 6 November.
Meanwhile, in New York's 13 September primaries, Micah Zellner won the Democratic primary for the state assembly's 76th District and Andrew Gounardes won the Democratic primary for the state assembly's 26th District; both ran unopposed and will face Republican opponents on 6 November.
Once again, PFAW congratulates these young progressive leaders on their important success this week!
People for the American Way extends its congratulations to two Young Elected Progressives (YEP) endorsees who emerged victorious in Massachusetts’ legislative primary elections yesterday.
Sean Garballey, who is currently a state representative for the 23rd District of Massachusetts, ran to retain his current seat, which he acquired in 2009; he was unopposed.
Carl Sciortino is a Democratic member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and has represented the 34th District since 2005. Carl ran unopposed to retain his current seat.