As Citizens United Turns 8, Here Are 8 Ways People are Fighting Back
This Sunday marks the eighth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling – that means it has been eight years since a 5-4 majority gave wealthy corporations and special interests nearly unlimited ability to influence our elections. Every year since then, we’ve been feeling the results. In the 2016 election alone, a Demos analysis found the decision led directly to at least $364 million in spending by wealthy donors and special interests.
The Citizens United ruling became a turning point. While elite donors have used it to consolidate their power in politics, regular people from across the country heard it as a call to fight for a fairer, more reflective politics in which everyday people can be heard and candidates from diverse backgrounds can run and win.
Two years ago, on the sixth anniversary of the decision, Every Voice and several of our partners reported on a long list of victories in support of a stronger democracy up through 2015. You can read that report here.
And there have been even more since then. So on this eighth anniversary of the Citizens United decision, here are eight ways people like you have been fighting for an accountable and inclusive democracy.
1. In 2015, Seattle voters approved a measure to create a first-of-its-kind democracy voucher program to turn every resident into a small donor.
In 2017, that program went into effect for the first time giving voters four $25 vouchers to give to qualifying candidates in three city races—two at-large council members and the city attorney. In its first use, the program worked as intended—candidates were able to run for office free from the influence of wealthy developers and lobbyists, and the donor pool was more reflective of the city’s diversity.
One Seattle voter who participated in the program told the Seattle Times, “my income has never been the highest in Seattle, so I always had a problem using my finances for campaigns, when I have to take care of home.” But with democracy vouchers, “people like me can contribute in ways that we never have before. We can participate in ways that big money always has.”
2. This year, candidates for office in Montgomery County, Maryland, are running for the first time under a program that matches small donations with public funds. Candidates who show broad community support and agree to strict contribution limits can have their small donations matched with public funds, turning a $25 donation into $175.
Participation is already high 10 months out from the election. As of December, nearly three-quarters of candidates for county council and county executive have applied to qualify for public funds.
By relying on small donations, the barriers for participation—mainly, being wealthy or having access to wealth—are lower. One candidate summed it up: “You look at the diversity of that pool, more women than have ever run in an election, more people of color.”
3. After voters gave the Howard County Council in Maryland the go-ahead to move forward with a matching fund program at the ballot in 2016, the council created one last summer. Similar to the Montgomery County program, Howard County candidates who have broad community support and agree to contribution limits can have their small donations matched on a sliding scale.
The system will go into effect for the 2022 election cycle.
“We’re looking forward to stepping out and adding our names to the list of jurisdictions that are taking campaign finance reform seriously,” Council Chair Jon Weinstein told the Baltimore Sun in June.
4. At the end of 2016, the Portland City Council in Oregon voted to create a new matching fund program for its elections that will go into effect for the 2020 election. To qualify for the program, candidates must adhere to strict limits and show community support. Like other programs around the country, their small donations will then be matched at a rate of 6-to-1.
Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz said the program was necessary “so that more people get talked to, more people get listened to and more people really feel and know that they made a huge difference, whether they live in a mansion or are selling Street Roots on the street.”
5. While the results of the 2016 election were bad in so many ways, Berkeley, California, was a bright spot. Voters there approved the creation of a program that matches small donations on a 6-to-1 basis for candidates who can show broad community support and agree to strict contribution limits.
In fact, several pro-democracy initiatives were approved by voters on Election Day in 2016. Voters in Missouri and Multnomah County, Oregon overwhelmingly approved contribution limit measures. Although it was later overturned by the legislature, South Dakota voters approved a measure to increase transparency, reduce the power of lobbyists, and create a voucher program. Rhode Island approved an ethics reform measure, Alaska decided to automatically register people to vote, and Mainers approved rank-choice voting.
6. States and localities are continuing to take action this year on reform, from Washington, D.C., to South Dakota.
Just this month in Washington, D.C., the city council—in a building just a mile down the road from the U.S. Capitol—voted unanimously to create a matching fund program for its elections, a program that will help raise the voices of everyday people in a city where developers and wealthy interests often have too big a say. A final vote by the council and the mayor’s signature (or veto) are still to come. A similar system is starting to move in Prince George’s County, Maryland, this year as well.
Voters in South Dakota will once again be able to vote on a ballot initiative to strengthen ethics laws and increase disclosure of political spending, after—as mentioned above—the legislature overruled the will of voters after the last election. This time, the measure is a state constitutional amendment so the legislature cannot undo it.
7. States and localities continue to say no to Citizens United through resolutions calling on Congress to overturn the decision. On Election Day 2016, voters in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s home county voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution calling on Congress to overturn the Citizens United decision.
Rock County is just one of hundreds of cities and states that have passed anti-Citizens United resolutions since 2010, either at the ballot or through legislative bodies. In 2017, with a vote of the legislature, Nevada joined the list of states opposing the decision. So far, 19 states and more than 700 localities and have adopted a form of this resolution.
8. Newly elected Virginia lawmakers created a new caucus to fight the power of big money in elections. While Democrats in Virginia fell one person short of the majority in the House of Delegates, 18 of Every Voice’s endorsed candidates won their races last year after agreeing to support policies to give everyday people a bigger voice in our elections.
Already, a handful of delegates in the state—which has some of the weakest campaign finance laws in the country—have created a “People’s Caucus” to reduce the power of corporate money. These new members are also being praised for their efforts to increase transparency.
Based on the success of its efforts in Virginia, Every Voice will be working with more state candidates across the country to support and train a new generation of leaders committed to fighting big money once in office.
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