The United States spent $6,285,557,223 on all congressional and presidential elections during the 2012 election cycle. To put that in perspective, fully one fourth of the world’s countries have a lower Gross Domestic Product than America’s campaign spending.
It was not always this way. In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, led by Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold. The act intended to limit the impact of ‘soft money,’ which is money spent not directly by candidates, but by other organizations – corporations, non-profits and unions – in support of them.
First, McCain-Feingold capped the total amount of money that these organizations are permitted to contribute. Second, it prohibited these groups from running commercials targeting a candidate within 60 days of the general election. Third, it prohibited candidates from coordinating with these organizations.
That law survived an initial challenge, led overeagerly by Sen. Mitch McConnell in McConnell v Federal Election Commission. McConnell argued that the law unconstitutionally infringed on his right to free speech – equating money to speech.
While that argument failed in 2003, the Court upheld it just seven years later in the now infamous case of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission. The group Citizens United sought to air a film entitled Hillary: The Movie on television. After the FEC blocked it, Citizens United sued.
Citizens United argued that the restrictions on advertising and donations unconstitutionally limited their right to free speech. Not only did the Supreme Court buy the argument that money is speech, it also agreed that corporations are people, or at least are guaranteed the same rights as people – namely, in this case, a right to speech.
In so doing, the Court permitted the creation of super PACs, which are political action committees that can receive unlimited funds from individuals, corporations or other groups, as long as they do not coordinate their spending with candidates.
Setting aside the claim that corporations are people, the great irony of Citizens United is that it claims because political speech is so important to democracy, it should be unrestricted. But instead, it created a system in which political speech is restricted to the wealthy.
Free speech is no longer free.
In the 2012 presidential election, super PACs spent almost $1 billion, according to the FEC. Research conducted by the Sunlight Foundation, a group that seeks to promote transparency in government, found that 31,385 people donated 28.1 percent of all political contributions in 2012. That’s right, 1 percent of the 1 percent donated $1.7 billion.
More and more is being spent each cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
One person, one vote is no longer valid.
With all of this money being spent, the fundamental principle of American democracy is ignored. Now, one dollar, or some proportion thereof, translates to one vote.
The fact of the matter is that more money does correlate to more votes. Between the $2.1 billion raised by Obama and Romney, Obama raised 51.9 percent; he took 51.1 percent of the popular vote. The Center for Responsive Politics finds that the biggest spender in a House race wins nine times out of 10.
This should be frightening if you’re a democrat – a proponent of democracy. But it should be more frightening if you’re a Democrat.
Although Obama raised more money than Romney in 2012, Romney’s unregulated super PAC spent twice as much as President Obama’s – $153 million to $74.7 million. Of the top ten spending super PACs, nine are associated with Republicans; of the top twenty, fifteen are. Those five Democratic PACs spent $81,419,130, compared to the Republicans’ $424,526,232, according to data from the New York Times.
However, it’s not as if Republicans are simply more popular with people – after all, Romney did lose. Instead, their few donors are spending more money. ‘Maxing out’ – reaching the $2,500 cap on donations to candidates – is four times more likely for Romney supporters than it is for Obama supporters.
Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue. Less than a month ago, the Court overturned aggregate contribution limits. The majority in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission confirmed that money is speech, and that the government cannot constitutionally limit total donations to all candidates. That being said, contributors can only still donate $2,600 to any one candidate. But a few people will be able to donate to even more candidates than before.
In case after case, the Supreme Court has undermined the true principle of democracy. Until Congress decides that speech should be free and equitably distributed, we need to fight money with money. The good news is that this works. Nearly 60 percent of President Obama’s campaign contributors donated less than $200. With more than 10 million donations, he outraised Mitt Romney. Next election season, be a part of that.
Contact Nick Ahamed at [email protected]