Activist Court Overturns Century-Old Campaign Finance Law

In a 5-4 decision issued this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court radically altered campaign finance law, obliterating the long-held distinction between spending by individuals and spending by corporations.

The case, Citizens United v. FEC, dealt with a challenge to an FEC ruling barring the airing of an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary during the 2008 primary elections. The lower court had said the McCain-Feingold law of 2002 prohibited the planned broadcasts because they would be aired during the 30 day period before a presidential primary and were paid for with corporate money.

The Supreme Court was faced with determining whether the lower court’s ruling was Constitutional. They were originally expected to rule narrowly on the particular merits and circumstances of this unusual case, but instead, the Court issued a sweeping and expansive ruling that undermines 100 years of precedent and law.

Here’s how the Campaign Legal Center describes it:

Today’s decision from the Supreme Court is an extreme example of judicial overreach that arbitrarily overturns decades of precedent and undercuts the powers of the legislative branch. What the Supreme Court majority did today was empower corporations to use their enormous wealth and urge the election or defeat of federal candidates, and in doing so, buy even more power over the legislative process and government decision making. As a result of this decision, for profit corporations and industries will be able to threaten members of Congress with negative ads if they vote against corporate interests, and to spend tens of millions on campaign ads to “punish” those who do not knuckle under to their lobbying threats.

Experts predict that this ruling will not only have implications for federal campaign finance law, but will require a change in North Carolina law as well. They also predict that this could be one more step in the court’s march toward a place where traditional campaign finance regulations are rendered meaningless. In four other cases since Roberts became Chief Justice, the Court has circumscribed campaign finance law, and there is no reason to think they will stop now.

Given this context, the only viable reform option is to create a comprehensive system of public campaign financing that encourages small donor giving and allows candidates to run special interest free. The small donor incentives and competitive funding stream present in most Voter-Owned, public financing systems would give candidates the capacity to compete with outside corporate money in a post-Citizens United fundraising world. And since public campaign financing is voluntary, it should not face any Constitutional troubles, even from an activist right-wing Court.

If one good thing can come out of today’s decision, it would be a new realization at the federal, state, and local levels, that fundamental campaign reform is needed to safeguard our democracy. By enacting public campaign financing systems, our leaders can create a way out of the campaign money chase and set our system of government up to withstand the worst of the damage that today’s ruling will bring.


Scorecard Reflects Growing Support for Campaign Reform

In the wake of the ongoing investigations of former Governor Mike Easley, a new scorecard suggests an antidote to North Carolina’s money-in-politics problems.

NC Voters for Clean Elections has released its 2009 Scorecard on Campaign Reform, highlighting the state’s progress on campaign finance reform. The scorecard hones in on legislative efforts to expand Voter-Owned Elections, a public campaign financing system that reduces candidates’ reliance on special interest fundraising. Under the system—which is available in North Carolina for appellate judges and some Council of State races—candidates who prove vast community support and agree to strict spending and fundraising limits can receive a public grant to run their campaign.

The 2009 scorecard reflects on a legislative session when Voter-Owned Elections gained significant traction in North Carolina. A bill to expand the state’s successful Council of State program was approved by the state Senate and a bill to authorize additional municipalities to invest in local public financing programs was passed by the House. Both initiatives will be considered again next year when the legislature reconvenes in May.

Overall, scores were higher than in past legislative sessions, demonstrating growing support for campaign finance reform in both chambers. 45% of House members and 34% of Senators had perfect 2009 scores, and nearly half of House members co-sponsored at least one of the Voter-Owned Elections bills.

Other highlights:

* The average 2009 score was 72% in the House and 70% in the Senate.

* A new lifetime score evaluated legislator’s votes on two dozen initiatives considered between 2005-2009. Perfect lifetime scores were earned by 19 House members and 11 Senators.

* The lowest scorers in the House were Reps. Ric Killian and James Langdon with 29% scores each. The lowest scorer in the Senate was Sen. Austin Allran with a 14% score for 2009.

* The lowest scoring Democrats were Reps. Jim Crawford and Timothy Spear with 43% scores in 2009.

To download and view the full scorecard click here.


Voters Owned Elections Success in Chapel Hill

Voter-Owned Elections will be a death knell for the candidates who use it.

Chapel Hill doesn’t have a problem with big money in elections.

There aren’t enough people using the program for it to have any impact.

All of these myths were shattered Tuesday night, when Voter-Owned Elections candidates Mark Kleinschmidt and Penny Rich were swept into office.

Kleinschmidt, who won the mayor’s race, was the only mayoral candidate who participated in the program. To qualify, he raised over 150 $10 and $20 contributions from Chapel Hill voters and agreed to strict spending and fundraising limits. In exchange he received a $9,000 grant to run his campaign. “The voter-owned fund played a crucial role in making sure that I could get my message out to voters,” Kleinschmidt said in a Common Cause press release today. “This was one of the most substantive campaigns I’ve ever been a part of, and a lot of that is because participating in the public financing program took the focus off of money and put it on issues.”

In contrast, the second place finisher Matt Czaijkowski raised tens of thousands of dollars ($28,000 as of 10/19/2009), an unprecedented figure for Chapel Hill, where campaigns are generally low cost. In many places, this kind of asymmetrical spending would guarantee victory (the top spender wins 9 times out of 10), but because Kleinschmidt was part of the program, he was able to stay competitive. In the final weeks of the election, he received $4,000 in rescue money that helped level the playing field and provided a key check on Czajkowski’s campaign spending.

Rich, in her second run for office, proved the merits of the program in a different way. She was the top vote getter on Tuesday night, receiving more votes than seven other candidates, including three incumbents. Rich designed her campaign around the Voter-Owned Elections program, using it as a tool to engage average citizens throughout the town. She far exceeded the minimum 75 contributions necessary to participate, and even got one qualifying donation from the person who regularly bags her groceries. Rich said in the News & Observer that the program had worked exactly the way it was supposed to: engaging more voters in the democratic process. “It feels like the voter-owned election program really worked,” said Rich. “We engaged the citizens, and they gave it back.”

All in all, the program was a success. Far from being turned off by Voter-Owned Elections, voters were enlivened by it, thrilled to see that their small contribution and participation could make a real difference. In the mayoral race the program served as an important check on big spending campaigns. And in the council race, the top vote getter was the one Voter-Owned candidate. Even though only two candidates participated in the program, Voter-Owned Elections still had a positive impact on the political process. Next time around, candidates would be wise to follow Rich’s and Kleinschmidt’s winning strategy and run the Voter-Owned way.


Capitalism Comes to Raleigh

Michael Moore’s new film “Capitalism: A Love Story” will be shown for free tonight at 7:30pm at the Regal North Hill’s Stadium 14.

Raleigh-Durham was chosen as one of ten “hard-hit” cities to get a free preview screening. Moore’s new film chronicles the loss of the American middle class, offering a scathing critique of an economic system that allows the top 1% to have more financial wealth than the bottom 95%.

Those who have “lost their jobs or are in foreclosure,” may attend the film for free, though no one is required to present any proof that they have fallen on hard times.

Its perhaps surprising that the film is being shown in North Hills, in the heart of “Midtown,” which serves as one of the affluent new hip hubs of urbane Raleigh, full of expensive boutiques, spas, and restaurants. But in a way is is also appropriate. Underneath the veneer of North Hills upper middle class prosperity lies the reality of today’s precarious economy: thousands of hard-working families who are just one step (or one hospital visit) away from losing their mini-American dream because of a lay-off, foreclosure, or bankruptcy.

The reality of today’s economic system is that even the educated and successful are now vulnerable to Wall Street’s capricious whims.

See more info. here.


Government Of, By, and For the Corporation

The Supreme Court could be one step away from striking down a century-old ban on corporate spending on elections and enshrining corporations with the same ability to contribute to a candidate as an individual.

The court heard continued oral arguments this morning in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, which addresses whether a group should have been able to use corporate money to distribute an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary in the middle of last year’s primary election. Citing the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Acts ban on corporate money, the FEC said no; appellate courts agreed, and the case made its way to the Supremes. The Supreme Court had an initial hearing in April, but scheduled another hearing outside of their regular term to specifically address the question of whether the long-standing ban on corporate and union money in elections was constitutional.

Reform advocates had hoped that the court would avoid making a decision with sweeping constitutional (and precedent overturning) implications. If they had to rule in favor of Citizens United they could rule more narrowly: that video-on-demand constitutes a different kind of expenditure than commercials or that Citizens United was a unique kind of corporation that should be subjected to different rules.

But based on this morning’s hearing, a sweeping decision could be in store, and the corporate floodgates could soon be unleashed. This, from the Supreme Court blog:

Despite the best efforts of four other Justices to argue for restraint, the strongest impression was that they had not convinced the two members of the Court thought to be still open to an exercise in modesty. At least the immediate prospect was for a sweeping declaration of independence in politics for companies and advocacy groups formed as corporations.

If this does in fact happen—and the ruling is as sweeping as predicted—federal and state law would be overturned, and corporations could start writing checks directly to candidates. This infusion of money could flood television, radio, and internet with political ads in unprecedented ways.

The good news is that voluntary public campaign financing systems would remain viable even in the event of a sweeping ruling that overturns the corporate money ban entirely. Participating Voter-Owned Elections candidates could agree to only accept small contributions and refuse corporate money as a condition for receiving public funds. Indeed, the only way to counterbalance corporate expenditures might be to infuse more public money into the system so that candidates have a way to run without relying on these entrenched interests. But the change would no doubt have a deleterious impact on our democracy, making it much easier for beholden candidates to win through sheer dollar power.

As the New York Times wrote in an editorial published yesterday (and reprinted in today’s N&O), we will all be worse off for it. They write :

If the court races to overturn federal and state laws, and its well-established precedents, to free up corporations to drown elections in money, it will be swinging for the fences. The American public will be the losers.