Ten years ago, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. FEC to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections.

The impact of this notorious decision was immediate. Two years before the decision, outside groups spent $338 million on elections, but by 2016 that number had ballooned to $1.4 billion. Outside groups spent over $1 billion in the 2018 election cycle — by far the most ever spent in a midterm election year.

Here in Maine, we have seen the results first hand. Television viewers endured nearly 26 advertisements per hour during the final weeks of the 2nd District race between Jared Golden and Bruce Poliquin. These ads were funded largely by dark money groups that collectively spent more than $33 per vote. This year’s U.S. Senate election promises to be even more costly. The TV ads began over a year before the vote, and national experts predict that more than $55 million will be spent, breaking all records for Maine. Most of this money will come from unknown donors with no real connection to Maine.

In 2013, the Maine Legislature, with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, responded to Citizens United by passing a resolution urging Congress to overturn the decision. Legislators from across the political spectrum seemed to agree with Sen. Angus King that Citizens United was “the worst decision since Dred Scott.”

While federal election funding laws continue to become more and more favorable to the wealthy, we in Maine are proud of reforms that prevent a takeover of our elections by special interests. Our first-in-the-nation Clean Elections system, now in its 20th year, has empowered people from all walks of life to run for office. When this system was threatened, first by the Supreme Court and then by a handful of Augusta insiders, Mainers responded, strengthening and defending the law.

Maine has also enforced stricter limits than the federal government on how much a person can give to a state-level candidate for political office. This year a new law takes effect that curtails the ability of lobbyists to bankroll the very politicians they try to influence.

But corporate interests are rarely deterred and never shamed. They continue to exploit any opportunity to use money to bend the democratic process toward their objectives. So, while we have much to be proud of, there is still much work to do. Even though the federal government and 23 states forbid corporate contributions to political candidates, corporations in Maine can still directly fund state-level candidates and political action committees that engage in state elections. In 2018, corporations and unions donated a combined $2 million to candidates, political parties and various PACs.

It’s one thing when a corporation takes control of another corporation. It’s entirely different when corporations execute a hostile takeover of our democracy.

The U.S. Supreme Court may believe that corporations deserve the same free-speech protections as individuals, but corporations do not have the right to vote in our elections. They should not be given the other privileges of true citizenship such as the right to fund candidate elections.

The 2010s will be remembered as a dark time for democracy as a result of Citizens United. Let’s make the 2020s a time where we make progress. Here in Maine, we are justifiably proud of our strong democratic tradition. We are a trailblazer in many democratic reforms ranging from ranked-choice voting to prisoner enfranchisement.

We should build upon this tradition in the decade ahead by fighting to ensure that corporate special interests do not have the power to decide who our politicians are.

 


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