Elections shouldn’t go to the highest bidder.

That was the point I made in a friend of the court brief that I filed in the United States Supreme Court in 2010 in the case called Citizens United.  Unfortunately, the Court disagreed and overturned 100 years of law, saying that corporations can spend billions of dollars to influence our elections. 
Despite widespread criticism of the ruling—and despite more friend-of-the court briefs filed by me and my colleagues in subsequent cases—the Supreme Court has continued to leave in place the Citizens United ruling.
In the wake of Citizens United, here’s what we see:

  • 50 organizations spent over $1 billion in federal elections in 2016. [1]
  • As many as 80% of S&P 500 corporations have made political contributions, directly or through their PACs, according to reports. [2]
  • More than 80 families each contributed over $1 million in the 2016 Presidential race. [3] Just 100 donors together contributed over $150 million in the Presidential race. [4]
  • In Minnesota, $45 million was spent on state campaigns in 2016. [5] More than $1 million was spent on some local legislative races in Minnesota.
  • The Koch Brothers Network plans to spend up to $400 million on the 2018 elections. [6] 

History is repeating itself. 100 years ago—facing public backlash over corporate corruption and influence peddling—many states, including Minnesota, banned corporate contributions.  100 years later, following Citizens United, corporate and big money spending once again threaten to stifle our democracy and drown out the voices of real voters. 
We should have a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United.  Without such an amendment (or a new Supreme Court that reverses the ruling), the courts will not permit the government to ban corporate electioneering.  But I believe the courts would permit the State or Congress to regulate some aspects of corporate electioneering if it can show it has a compelling interest and the regulation is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
While we work toward a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United, we should consider taking common-sense steps like these:

  • Require corporations to secure approval of the majority of their shareholders before they may engage in election activity.  This would give shareholders the right to say “no” to such expenditures.
  • Require corporations to disclose to their shareholders their specific expenditures on elections before the election.  This would allow shareholders to “vote with their feet” if they disagree with the spending.
  • Make sure that corporations do not deduct from their taxes money spent on electioneering.
  • Make sure that corporations controlled by foreign nationals do not participate in election spending and require them to file disclosures that certify their ownership.

I hope you will let your state legislators and members of Congress know that despite the Supreme Court ruling, there appear to be some steps the state and federal governments can take to limit corporate influence on our political process.  I also hope you will share with them your own ideas for how to get the money out of politics.

Lori Swanson