In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court championed the First Amendment's free speech clause over the idea of the government restricting corporate campaign funding by wealthy billionaires, and committees established for the purpose of fundraising.
In 2002, then-President George W. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold Act, which banned soft money or unregulated donations to campaigns. Democracy is under assault from not only the high court that upheld Arizona voting restrictions recently, but from state legislatures around the country as well.
The idea behind McCain-Feingold was to restrict what corporate donors and labor unions had been doing for years, and in the aftermath of Watergate in 1974, Congress put new limits on contributions to campaigns. But a few years after that, donors were then allowed to contribute unlimited amounts of money to the parties themselves, but not to the candidates, as long as party-building activities were financed with this money like voter registration drives. Yet soft money from both Democrats and Republicans kept flowing to the candidates.
One of the worst things that ever happened to our democracy, in terms of campaign finance reform, was what the U.S. Supreme Court did in 2010, when in the Citizens United case, the court struck down campaign financing laws regarding "electioneering ads" 30 days prior to a primary and 60 days prior to a general election. What this Supreme Court decision did was open the gates for the inundation of special interests that are a threat to our democratic government. Citizens United was a victory for Wall Street, Big Pharma, health care companies, and the rest of the elite, but it was a decision by the high court that just tipped the scales further.
And in the wake of the McCain-Feingold legislation that restricted the use of soft money donations, we have seen the increase in what are known as tax-exempt 527 groups, which are not subject to federal campaign laws restricting financing, and there are no restrictions on who may contribute. Citizens United has fueled the Super PACs, which donate unlimited amounts to candidates through undisclosed means – dark money. We have an urgent need in America to prevent corporations from undermining self-government, and if we allow the special interests to continue dominating the political landscape, we can never have a truly equitable electoral system.
And ever since Shelby County v. Holder (2013), when the majority opinion gutted that part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires areas with a history of racial discrimination to preclear any voting changes with the Justice Department, states once subject to preclearance laws have eliminated online voting registration, early voting, "Souls to the Polls" Sunday voting, and same-day registration. And to add insult to injury, the U.S. Supreme Court greenlighted state legislative power in Arizona to impose the types of voting restrictions that will impact minority voters. A dangerous precedent has just been set.
There are state legislatures that have no problem with this ongoing assault on democracy, and because of some archaic obstructionist procedure within the U.S. Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell and his associates had no trouble at all implementing the filibuster to block a national voting rights bill, and McConnell threw Democrats under the bus for their lack of bipartisanship. Representatives like Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, have openly admitted his party's path to commanding a majority is through the manipulation of legislative districts with gerrymandering. Thus you have an elected representative who believes the politicians should select the voters, and not the other way around.
Brent Been is a Tahlequah educator with an emphasis on civics and history.