The Citizens United Effect

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

February 26, 2013

Not many people can name more than a handful of Supreme Court rulings. Maybe Roe v. Wade. Perhaps Brown v. Board of Education. Citizens United will end up in that select company. The words “Citizens United” are fast becoming part of our political vocabulary, shorthand for democracy for sale.

Even fairly casual observers know that the Citizens United ruling blessed unlimited election spending. We already had a raging campaign arms race on our hands before the court decided the Citizens United case in early 2010. That ruling put the arms race on steroids. Spending in Wisconsin elections has tripled since the court’s decision. Comparing the two election cycles before the ruling to the two following it, overall election spending in Wisconsin grew from slightly more than $120 million from 2006 through 2008 to well over $390 million from 2010 through 2012.

All that money in Wisconsin elections was supplied by about 92,500 donors, a small cadre of contributors equal to barely 2% of the state’s voting age population.

In federal elections, Citizens United gave us so-called “Super PACs,” the nickname for political committees that special interests use to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. In 2012, hundreds of these beasts were established, with names like Restore Our Future, Brighter Future Fund, New Prosperity Foundation, Strong America Now, American Sunrise, America Shining, and Restoring America. And there was American Crossroads, America on the Move, Americans for New Leadership and Americans for Real Change.

Care to guess which ones supported Republicans and which ones favored Democrats?

In the 2012 presidential election, 32 megadonors gave as much money ($313 million, to be exact) to Super PACs as 3.7 million people gave to Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s campaigns combined.

If money equals speech as the Supreme Court insists, then each of those 32 Super PAC donors spoke with 115,000 times the volume of each of the nearly 4 million Americans who gave much smaller amounts to the candidates. And for the rest of the 308 million people who live in this country, the mute button was on.

While a great many people are aware of how Citizens United opened the floodgates to a torrent of special interest money in elections, far fewer understand the damage the court’s ruling has done to transparency and accountability in campaign financing. Citizens United rendered our disclosure laws obsolete, leaving the public increasingly in the dark about where all the political money comes from.

Citizens United legalized a form of election spending that had been banned in Wisconsin since 1905 and outlawed in federal elections since 1907. Of course there were no laws requiring disclosure of donations used to fuel that spending because there was no such spending for over 100 years. It was prohibited. When the Supreme Court overturned these laws, we not only lost protection against the corrupting effects of unlimited election spending but we also didn’t get disclosure. Transparency in these transactions would require new laws requiring the disclosure of the origins of the funds fueling special interest electioneering. New disclosure laws that Congress has not enacted for federal elections, and neither the current Republican-controlled legislature nor the Democratic majority that preceded it has created for our state elections.

Despite the flood of money and the loss of disclosure, some still downplay the effects of Citizens United. Media pundits have even suggested that big money lost in last fall’s elections. They like to point to fat-cat donors like casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who dumped somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million into five races with the candidate he favored losing every race.

The pundits are highlighting the exception to gloss over the rule. Big money wins more than its share of elections. Candidates backed by Sheldon Adelson and his ilk win more often than not. Earlier in 2012 Adelson himself donated $250,000 to Governor Scott Walker to help him survive the recall election, and Walker did just that. And in Wisconsin’s 115 state legislative contests last fall, the best-funded candidate won 89% of the time.

But big money wins even when it appears to lose. It wins because of the way it determines who can seek public office and who cannot. Before a single vote is cast, there effectively is a wealth primary that weeds out those who do not have big money behind them. It wins because of how it distorts the policy agenda, the way it dictates what is even debated in the halls of Congress and in state capitols.

When is the last time there has been a meaningful debate on Capitol Hill or in Wisconsin’s legislature about poverty? The ranks of the poor have done nothing but grow thanks to the great recession, yet elected officials are allergic to debates on the subject. Why? The answer is simple. Politicians can’t raise money talking about poverty. Poor people don’t make campaign contributions.

When is the last time you can remember lawmakers engaging in a good debate about the challenges facing rural communities or advancing a rural agenda? There is near-total silence on the subject. Why? Once again, the answer is simple. Politicians can’t raise money talking about rural issues. Rural folks don't make many campaign contributions. We’ve done zip code analyses of campaign contributions in Wisconsin and found that most campaign donations come from just 32 of the state’s more than 900 zip codes. All of them are urban or suburban communities. Rural people don’t make many political contributions.

Two recent polls, one conducted by a conservative think tank and the other by an environmental group, show that most people in our state oppose relaxing environmental protections to make mining in the northwoods more profitable and thus more feasible. Yet state lawmakers are moving at lightning speed to approve mining deregulation. Why are they moving so fast to do something the people don’t want? It’s worth pointing out they’ve received nearly $16 million in donations from pro-mining interests, more than 600 times as much as they’ve received from opponents of the legislation. Sixteen million dollars says to hell with public opinion. Sixteen million dollars says do it anyway.

We’ll see much more of this kind of thing the longer Citizens United is the law of the land.