In the news

The Sun Chronicle
Janet Domenitz

January isn't dark just because of the weather. This month, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision turns six, marking another year of mega-donor politics and secret political spending. It's the same court decision that determined money is speech and corporations are people, both concepts fundamentally at odds with a democratic system of government and basic common sense.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling, it's no wonder that many citizens believe that our elections are irreparable, and that reform is out of reach for the American people. But a close look at victories won against big-money politics and growing bipartisan support for reform shows that this theory just doesn't stand up to the facts.

At first glance, big-money politics can look like an unstoppable juggernaut. In each election since the Supreme Court's 2010 decision, super PACs and outside special interest groups have broken fundraising records. In the 2016 presidential race, they are likely to do the same.

According to a recent report by the New York Times, just 158 families provided half of all early campaign money in the 2016 presidential election. Under Citizens United, courting wealthy mega-donors - who often have different priorities and policy preferences than most voters - has taken precedence over appealing to everyday Americans.

Big-money politics has damaged our democracy, but across the country, Americans are standing up for and winning reforms. In state after state, voters and legislators have passed legislation supporting an amendment to the Constitution that would overturn Citizens United. Sixteen states, including Massachusetts, and nearly 700 communities nationwide, including many in the Bay State, have called for an amendment to overturn the decision, and this year California and Washington State may put their own referendums on the ballot.

Support for an amendment isn't limited to any one political party. A recent poll by Bloomberg shows that 78 percent of Democrats, Republicans and independents support overturning Citizens United. A New York Times poll shows that 85 percent of Americans believe our country's campaign finance system needs fundamental changes or must be completely rebuilt.

Voters are also waging the fight for clean elections at the state and local level. On Election Day in 2015, Maine voters passed a ballot initiative strengthening their state's clean elections law, allowing citizens of all walks of life to run for office without needing to depend on wealthy donors.

On the same day, Seattle voters passed a first-in-the-nation program to refocus local elections on constituents rather than special interests.

These two victories took place on opposite sides of the country, but they tell the story of a single movement - one to put ordinary voters back in control of our elections.

Recently, council members in Washington, D.C., introduced legislation to create their own small donor empowerment program. That's a system to amplify the voice of ordinary voters by matching small donations with limited public funds for candidates who agree to turn away larger contributions.

Small donor empowerment has a track record of success in areas like New York City, where candidates for city council have used the program to raise the bulk of their funds from small donors.

A similar bill pending in Congress has the support of U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, Katherine Clark, Joseph Kennedy, Steve Lynch, Jim McGovern, Seth Moulton and Nikki Tsongas, as well as Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren in the Massachusetts delegation, and we applaud them for that.

In addition to standing up against the influence of super PACs and mega-donors in our elections, voters are working to stem the tide of secret, undisclosed campaign spending unleashed by Citizens United.

Last month, a coalition of organizations, including ours, delivered one million petitions to the president, urging him to take action to strengthen disclosure. With one stroke of the pen, President Obama could sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending.

On the sixth anniversary of Citizens United, opportunities for real reform are everywhere, from cities and states to the halls of the Congress. Americans want solutions; they're proposing solutions, voting for solutions and putting solutions into practice - no million-dollar super PAC can stop that.

Across the country, Americans are proving that democracy isn't dead, no more than corporations are people or money is speech.


Janet Domenitz is executive director of MASSPIRG, a Boston-based consumer group.

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