On Citizens United anniversary, legislators and advocates call for reform

By: - January 24, 2022 6:00 am
Democrats and Republicans cash contributions campaign donations

Photo illustration by DonkeyHotey via Flickr CC BY 2.0

On Friday, the 12th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commision, several Wisconsin legislators and campaign finance reform advocates held a press conference to promote a constitutional amendment that would reverse the flood of money into politics.

Citizens United made it legal for corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. A 5-4 majority ruled that corporations are “persons” for the purposes of political speech, and that limiting “independent political spending” from corporations and other groups violates the First Amendment right to free speech. 

“The Supreme Court essentially declared that corporations are people and have the same rights as people, and that money is speech and therefore corporations spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections.” Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said, summing up the decision during the Friday press conference.

The Supreme Court majority reasoned at the time that “independent political spending” did not present a threat of corruption, as long as there was no coordination between donors and a particular political candidate’s campaign. 

But the growth of Super PACs in the wake of the decision, Subeck says, shows how it “opened the floodgates to big money special interest spending in our elections.”

“As a result, the political arena has become essentially a gated community, an exclusive playground for the super-rich and the corporations, and We, the People of Wisconsin, are pretty much reduced to the role of spectators.”

– Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Subeck is proposing — for the fourth time — a statewide referendum on  a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United.

The referendum, which Subeck seeks to have placed on the ballot in November 2022, would be advisory. If it passed — like dozens of other, local referenda that have passed around Wisconsin in cities and counties where a majority of voters have agreed that Citizens United should be reversed — it would merely send the message that Wisconsinites want their members of Congress to propose an amendment to the Constitution. That amendment would then have to be ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.  

It’s a long shot — especially since the Republican majority in the Legislature has so far been unwilling even to let the referendum idea come up for debate. “I believe that we have every single Democrat on as a sponsor of it,” says Subeck, “and not a single Republican has agreed to come on board.”

That partisan dynamic doesn’t hold for voters. Even Republican-heavy counties in Wisconsin have passed referenda to restore limits on money in politics.

“At the very least, let the people of Wisconsin speak,” said Subeck. “Let’s listen to them. Let’s hear them. Let’s let their voices be heard by putting a referendum on the statewide ballot on the next election in November.”

“Americans want to engage in government and a political process, but sadly, it’s reached a point where many Americans simply feel their voices don’t matter,” said Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire), the co-sponsor, with Subeck, of the joint resolution.

Calling Citizens United “ a blow to Russ Feingold’s legacy” because it struck down the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) unveiled a petition voters can sign to demand that Republican committee chairs take up a package of six bills that have been waiting since last year to get a hearing, and that aim to restore the legacy of clean elections in Wisconsin. The bills include measures to regulate political action committee (PAC) donations, end “corporate campaign bribes,” and force public disclosure of political donations, in addition to the Citizens United referendum.

Matt Rothshild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, showed slides to demonstrate how political spending increased dramatically over the last 12 years after Citizens United. A bar graph of data collected by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign showed that, over the last 11 years in Wisconsin, spending on federal races went up 800%.

From 1998-2009, independent expenditures in Wisconsin totaled $17.65 million From 2010-2021, they totaled $138.17 million

Wisconsin’s own Richard Uihlein, head of the Uline Corporation, is now the leading SuperPAC donor for this year’s elections, Rothschild noted, having spent $8.2 million already.

“These obscene amounts of money almost totally sideline the average citizen, who obviously doesn’t have millions of dollars or even thousands of dollars to toss around,” Rothschild said.

“As a result, the political arena has become essentially a gated community, an exclusive playground for the super-rich and the corporations, and We, the People of Wisconsin, are pretty much reduced to the role of spectators,” he added, “and sometimes blindfolded spectators at that because we don’t know who is paying for all the mud that’s splattering on our screens during election season.”

In 2022, he predicted that all previous fundraising records will be broken, with $100 million or more spent on the U.S. Senate race and another $100 million on the race for governor.

“In a democracy, politics shouldn’t be a game played primarily by the super-rich and the corporations,” Rothschild said. “In a democracy, we’re all supposed to be equal participants. That’s what one person, one vote is all about. We’re all supposed to have an equal say. And we just don’t.”

Until that changes, he said, “we can’t, with any truthfulness whatsoever, claim to live in a healthy democracy.”


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.