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This month's U.S. Senate vote on a constitutional amendment to allow for reasonable limits on campaign cash had plenty of drama. But what's more dramatic by far is what's been happening to our elections and how Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn have refused to address big money in politics.
The Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission broke with precedent by ruling that corporations enjoyed the same free speech rights as people, and accordingly allowing them to use their corporate treasuries to influence elections. In combination with other decisions −− most recently this spring's ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, which for the first time ever struck down a federal contribution limit −− this wrong−headed misinterpretation of the First
Amendment has unleashed an unprecedented surge of campaign spending. What's most dangerous about this flood of big money is that much of it comes from just a tiny number of large donors, who are then able to drown out the voices of the rest of us. In fact in the 2012 elections, just 32 super PAC donors spent as much as all 3.7 million small donors to Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama combined. Democracy only works when our representatives are accountable to their constituents, not super PACs bankrolled by out−of−district donors.
But far from accepting this as a new status quo, Americans have been fighting back. In just a few short years, 16 states have enacted resolutions calling for Citizens United to be overturned, as have more than 550 cities and localities across the country. A majority of the Senate answered that call by voting to adopt the Democracy for All amendment. This first Senate vote fell short of the required two−thirds margin set out by the Constitution when an amendment is at issue. Justifiably, amendments need to reach a high bar to be enacted. But it's one that has been achieved 27 times in our nation's history, with at least seven amendments specifically designed to overturn Supreme Court decisions. Most amendments take years to be enacted, so this week's vote was only a milestone −− albeit an important one −− in the fight to reclaim our democracy.
What's clear is that the public overwhelmingly supports getting big money out of politics. Poll after poll confirms that ordinary Americans, Democrat and Republican alike, reject the super PAC−dominated status quo. In 2012, Colorado and Montana (won by Obama by 5 points and Romney by 13 points, respectively) both passed anti−Citizens United ballot resolutions by near−identical 3:1 margins. And as it opened its debate, more than 3 million petitions in support of the amendment were delivered to the Senate. This is an issue that is not going away: The Senate vote is just the beginning, a big step forward by the movement to reclaim our democracy.
It's also clear that there are measures that can, and should, be taken right away to make our democracy work better and make sure that out−of−district mega−donors aren't the only way to finance campaigns. In particular, programs to empower small donors with tax credits and matching funds have proven successful at amplifying the voices of ordinary citizens, and reducing the influence of large donors. New York City has such a program for its city council campaigns, and in 2013, small donors were responsible for 61 percent of participating candidates' contributions, when funds from the matching program are included. All but two winning candidates participated in the small donor program, showing that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without looking outside their districts for large−dollar contributions.
It's been an important, dramatic month for fixing our democracy. But what's even more important is what comes next.
Smith is the state director for the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG).
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