I consider myself pretty tuned into politics, but I often hear mention of “Citizens United” and have no idea what this is and why it is such a big deal. Can you explain Citizens United and what impact it might have on me as a voter? – Citizen wondering about Citizens
A bipartisan campaign finance law known as the McCain-Feingold Act was passed in 2002. Under this law, corporations and unions were prohibited from engaging in political speech by purchasing media advertisements that mentioned the names of candidates. That all changed in 2010 with a Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Citizens United held that the First Amendment does not allow the government to restrict the political speech of corporations, unions, and other associations. The 5-4 majority ruled that the act of speech itself was protected, regardless of the nature of the speaker. Campaign expenditures were held to be a form of protected political speech. The decision overturned a century-old precedent that allowed the government to regulate such spending, which is why it was so controversial.
On July 16 of this year, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens passed away. He was one of the dissenting votes in Citizens United and he argued that corporations, unions, and other non-human entities are not entitled to the same free speech rights as natural persons.
Justice Stevens also understood the impact Citizens United would have on our democracy. Prior to the decision, only individuals could contribute, in limited amounts, to candidates for federal office. Citizens United changed all that. Now, corporations can contribute unlimited amounts to what are known as super PACs (political action committees) that support federal candidates.
The impact may go even further than some have imagined. In 2016, we saw how foreign influence can shape our elections. Citizens United potentially allows foreign corporations to legally donate to candidates as long as they are incorporated in the United States. Justice Stevens predicted this might happen when he wrote that Citizens United “would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.”
There are some protections in place to prevent foreign nationals from directly impacting our elections through spending. For instance, the money must originate from U.S. operations of the union or corporation. And only U.S. citizens can be involved in the decision to spend money on a campaign. As you can probably guess, it would take very little to comply with these weak restrictions. Foreign nationals can therefore use this decision to wield immense influence on our democracy.
Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, it’s hard to deny the effect that astronomical sums of corporate and union money can have on elections. As a citizen, your voice could be diluted by individuals whose ultimate identity may be shrouded by the corporate entity. This is the effect of Citizens United and why so many people concerned with our democracy are trying to have the decision overturned.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is general in nature and not to be taken as legal advice, nor to establish an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Laura H. Budd or Weaver | Budd, Attorneys at Law. Submit your questions for The Fine Print to: firstname.lastname@example.org