Citizens DisUnited
Voting booth

Today is election day in Pennsylvania.  With Rick Santorum out of the Republican nomination hunt, Pennsylvania’s local media surely must have lost out on millions of dollars in political advertising booty.

That realization led to another revelation:  The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, finding that corporations are persons and free to spend virtually without limit in political campaigns, is going to bring dramatic and dangerous change to our electoral process.

Because I represent individuals and families often against powerful and wealthy companies, I find myself sometimes pointing out that we are not the ones with influential lobbyists in Washington or Harrisburg. The Citizens United decision makes that observation sound anachronistic.   No matter how powerful the army lined up in opposition, there was always the quaint notion that we all were entitled to the same vote on election day.

That just isn’t true anymore.

My vote, your vote, they just are not the same as the vote that someone like Sheldon Adelson enjoys.  Sure, I can donate a few hundred bucks to this or that candidate.   But I don’t have Adelson’s billions.  I don’t have Wall Street bonus millions.  These are the fatcats that are funding the SuperPACs that will be inundating the airwaves with negative ads during the next six months.

The adverse impact from this Supreme Court decision cannot be underestimated.  Yes, there is the undue influence SuperPACs will wield in this election.  We do not know yet the full reach of these political ad buys, how much will find its way into Senate races, into close House contests, into even local campaigns.  The impact is more than merely annoying.

Studies show that the amount spent on advertising does correlate with votes.  Look what Romney did to Gingrich in Florida, as an example. There may be other, less obvious consequences, too.  A report from the prestigious Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, issued today, finds that the vast majority of Americans believe SuperPACs will cause corruption in the electoral process and that a large number of eligible voters are more likely to abstain in November because they are disillusioned by the influence the ultra-wealthy will have in the election.

The news media is unlikely to criticize these developments too harshly.  After all, the influx of tens of millions of new dollars on SuperPAC political ads is going to go mostly to media companies.  Bite the hand that feeds them?  Not likely.

But the news media has every reason to stand up against Citizens United and the SuperPAC movement.  The same First Amendment that has protected the rights of the press since the dawn of our democracy now is invoked as the basis for the free-speech rights of “corporate persons.”  The First Amendment has made this country what it is; now the Court is using it to destablize any semblance of balance.

Unless there is a major change in the make-up of the Supreme Court – another general election issue that hasn’t received enough attention yet – Congress has been told not to infringe on the free speech rights of corporations.  Some groups are toying with various versions of a proposed constitutional amendment.  But a constitutional amendment seems well beyond reach.

There are a couple of approaches that should be considered.  No they should be pushed.  We should stomp our feet and demand.

First, Congress can regulate speech, even if it cannot eliminate it.  Corporate donations (as well as those from unions and other organizations that run or sponsor PACs or SuperPACs), the so-called soft money, which does not go directly to the office-seeker, can and must be regulated.  There should be limits on the amounts that can be given and there should be full and complete disclosure.

Second, there should be public funding of elections.  Public trust in elected officials is already at an unacceptable low.  Candidates should be given a budget and that’s it.  If a politician cannot run a campaign within a certain budget, how can s/he claim to be able to run the government within a budget?  Candidates can still generate “free media” on news shows and radio and in various social media.  Candidates can actually hold press conferences.  They can debate one another.  They can go door to door and meet voters.

The powerful have more money.  But there is power in numbers, too.  That means that the many have to speak out for campaign finance reform.  It has to be made a priority.

There isn’t time enough before November to make any changes at all, let alone the radical changes necessary to temper the influence of Citizens United.   How much damage will there be before it becomes painfully clear that campaign finance reform is no longer a choice, but a necessity?