The Supreme Court last week struck another blow against democracy by overturning Arizona’s Clean Election Law. Let’s fight back to reclaim our democracy. (More)
Last week, the 5-4 activist conservative majority on the Supreme Court found yet another way to put our politics in the hands of the moneyed interests who bankroll the conservative movement and undermine progressive government by striking a significant blow to state clean election laws. Take action now by writing a letter to your local newspaper editor opposing the sale of our democracy, and by supporting organizations listed below who are fighting to take the for sale sign down.
The Supreme Court ruling at issue, Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, struck down a key portion of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act. Under such Clean Election Laws, which exist in Arizona, Maine, and some local jurisdictions, candidates for public office that show a basic level of support are able to obtain public funds for their campaigns if they agree to forgo private financing. Such laws are designed to help preserve our democracy by ensuring that candidates are able to run for office without being beholden to wealthy interests. Public financing also increases the responsiveness of elected officials to their constituents by allowing candidates to spend more time with voters rather than having to constantly be begging for money from the wealthy and corporate interests.
Unfortunately, those wealthy interests are often able to overwhelm public financing systems, as the lump sum amount of public financing that candidates receive can be swamped by the truckloads of cash that privately-financed campaigns can raise. Arizona sought to address that problem by providing additional matching funds to publicly financed candidates. Under the Arizona matching fund system, if a privately financed candidate spent more than a certain amount, each publicly-financed candidates would receive 94% of that additional amount in matching funds, up to a specific total amount of public financing. There was no cap in Arizona on the amount that a privately financed candidate can spend.
The Supreme Court ruling on Monday found Arizona’s matching fund system to violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, on the grounds that such a system places a substantial burden on the speech of privately financed candidates and the independent expenditure groups that support them. While the Court’s ruling was not exactly surprising given the Court’s previous ruling in Citizens United and the questions that the conservative activist majority asked at oral argument, it was misguided. For one thing, the decision was based on the conservative majority’s faulty conclusion that money equals speech that is entitled to First Amendment protection. In addition, as Justice Elena Kagan explained in a well-written dissent, it is simply wrong to contend that the matching funds burden anyone’s speech given that they do not prevent any privately financed speech, matching funds are available to all candidates regardless of viewpoint, and such matching funds allow for more speech.
While the Court purported to uphold the ability of states to provide for public financing, the Court’s holding strikes a serious blow at the effectiveness of such systems by preventing states from ensuring that such system cannot simply be overwhelmed by candidates who are able to raise nearly endless amounts of money thanks to the Citizens United decision. In short, the five conservative activists on the Court have taken another step towards stealing our democracy away from we the people.
In order to take our democracy back, we the people have to do three things:
1. Elect Presidents and Senators who will nominate and support Supreme Court Justices that understand that money is not speech, and that our democracy is not something that you should be able to simply buy.
2. Push for a Constitutional amendment that makes it clear that money in the electoral context is not speech. Such an amendment would ensure that campaign finance laws and public financing would be subjected only to the types of rational basis review that most legislation is subject to, rather than the type of heightened review that occurs due to the faulty belief that money is speech. Congresswoman Donna Edwards proposed such an amendment in 2010.
3. Get involved in the political system, so that we can outweigh the impact of money. On election day, each of our votes are worth just as much as that of one of the Koch brothers or any of the other conservative sugar daddies. And during a campaign, strong grassroots organizing can be just as effective as the mindless attack ads that most campaigns rely on. But for this alternative approach to work, we all have to get involved.
In order to help take our democracy back, we’d urge all of our readers to:
* Write a letter to your local newspaper editor supporting publicly financed campaigns and rejecting the notion that money equals speech.
* Join and follow on Facebook the following organizations that are fighting to return our democracy to the people, rather than to just the wealthy and corporate elite:
Brennan Center for Social Justice – a public interest think tank and legal advocacy organization based at New York University that helps litigate many high profile cases regarding elections and campaign finance. Their Facebook page is here.