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Five years after: What Citizens United has wrought

VoteCitizens United v. FEC  — the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision holding that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts in elections — turns five next week.

In recognition of this “milestone,” Reuters has a cogent explanation of the 5-4 decision and the havoc that’s followed.

Points that can’t be emphasized enough:

  • Outside spending has since dwarfed that of candidates and political parties.

In the wake of Citizens United, there has been an explosion in spending by outside interests the likes of which we have never seen before. They have spent almost $2 billion in total since the ruling five years ago.

Below the presidential level, this spending was largely concentrated in a handful of close races in key battleground states. Outside groups now routinely outspend both candidates and parties in pivotal races.

  • Individual “mega-donors” now control elections, while the rest of us barely matter.

Since 2010, the top 195 individual donors to Super PACs and their spouses gave nearly 60 percent of the total that Super PACs spent — many times the amount contributed by business corporations.

All this is happening as ordinary Americans are giving less to political campaigns. In 2014, the number of reported federal contributors (those giving $200 or more) dropped for the first time in decades. Small donations are also down.

During this time of historic wealth inequality, individual mega-donors have more clout than at any point since Watergate. While these few voices are now much louder, many others are increasingly muffled.

  • Elections are now opaque as dark money has exploded.

While federal candidates and political parties are required to disclose all their donors above $200, outside groups need only do so if they qualify as political action committees (PACs). Since the Citizens United ruling, 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations and other groups have emerged to spend money in elections. They do not register as PACs, and they can keep all their donors secret. This is the dark money that has influenced many races. Donors who want to spend six or seven figures in elections without being identified funnel their money through these groups.

[Dark money] played a critical role in Republicans winning the Senate in November. Consider, dark money accounted for fully 89 percent of all outside spending to support Cory Gardner, the winner in Colorado, 86 percent to support David Perdue, the winner in Georgia, and 81 percent for Thom Tillis, the winner in North Carolina.

One Comment


  1. david esmay

    January 19, 2015 at 9:53 am

    I’ve read the First Amendment, and I can’t find the word money anywhere.

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