by Colleen Flaherty
On January 21, the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC—which opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate dollars to influence elections—will celebrate its fifth anniversary. Since its inception, the ruling that equated money with free speech has impacted elections far more than predicted.
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Since 2010, the number of reported outside money spent in Senate races has doubled to $486 million, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released today. The amount being spent by dark money groups, which don’t always need to disclose their donors or spending, has also doubled to $226 million.
These figures are actually an underestimation—the Federal Election Commission data the study is evaluating doesn’t include spending on certain “issue ads” that don’t have to be reported, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
The Brennan Center traced 10 toss-up Senate races, and of the total spending, non-party outside groups actually outspent candidates, 47 percent to 41 percent.
What’s particularly worrisome is how the explosion of campaign spending has been done to amplify the voices of a very few wealthy individuals. According to the report:
“In the three federal elections held since Citizens United, there has been more than $1 billion in super PAC spending. Just 195 individuals and their spouses gave almost 60 percent of that money — more than $600 million. The pattern is not limited to super PACs; in the 2014 elections, the 100 biggest donors to all types of political committees together gave $323 million, almost matching the $356 million in small donations that came from an estimated 4.75 million people.”
To reiterate, the influence of 100 wealthy individuals had the equivalent voice of 4.75 million people, while fewer than 200 people account for the majority of Super PAC spending.
As for the individual Super PAC contributions, the highest spender, the Senate Majority PAC, received contributions that were on average almost double the size the average annual household income in America, currently $73,000. The second highest spender, Ending Spending, was getting contributions that averaged more than six times the average American income.
In those 10 competitive Senate races from 2014, “all but two got less than 1 percent of their individual contributions from small donors of $200 or less. Average contributions from donors of more than $200 were in the five- and six-figure range.”
Since the decision that has amplified the voices of corporations and millionaires at the expense of the average voter, hundreds of local governments and 16 states have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. This month, the House will reintroduce the Government by the People Act, a bill to once again introduce the constitutional amendment to bring reform to campaign spending.