by Griffin Bur
This election year, Americans will likely be subject to the greatest torrent of political campaign and advertising spending ever seen in the country. Just this past week, the city of Greenville saw some of the heaviest advertising in the country. Though the ultimate causes for this inflow of money are varied, the increase in spending on ads can be traced directly back to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
This 5-4 decision in favor of the conservative non-profit organization Citizens United allowed for unlimited spending on political advertising by any U.S.-based corporation, in the process striking down the McCain-Feingold Act (also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which limited such expenditures, among other things). The five supporting members (Scalia, Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy) of the court based their decision on the principle that spending money on campaign ads constitutes a form of speech that should not be regulated.
What this decision ignores is that, simply put, the wide disparity of incomes in this country means that those with a lot of it can effectively drown out those with little of it. To borrow a phrase, this decision follows the letter of the law at the expense of its spirit. That is, while spending money on advertising is obviously a form of expression in one sense, it is different from, say, a letter to a newspaper editor or a post on an online forum. The latter two are available to virtually all citizens, while the former is available only to a choice few. The “goal” behind the First Amendment is to ensure that all citizens’ voices are heard and that vibrant public debate can exist. Simply deregulating spending on campaign advertising in no way guarantees the fulfillment of that goal.
To be sure, the ruling in Citizens United continues to attract opprobrium across the political spectrum. Various polls show between 60 and 80 percent opposition to the ruling. A number of opposition groups have sprung up, including Move to Amend, a group promoting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution overturning the Supreme Court’s decision.
Such an amendment is a major step since, in general, the Constitution is a difficult document to modify. But given the fact that this egregious decision was made in the highest court in the land, there are few other options for countering it. There are two ways to have this (or any) constitutional amendment passed. The first way: two-thirds of both the U.S. House and Senate must pass the amendment and then three-fourths of the states must vote to accept the amendment. The second way: two-thirds of the state legislatures must call a Constitutional Convention, and then three-fourths of the states must ratify whatever amendments are passed at the Convention. The requirements for both methods are stringent, and crucial to both of them is a show of mass support against CU.
At first, this struggle seems daunting. Electing even a handful of anti-CU politicians is a difficult task but even that level of success wouldn’t make a difference. Since vast majorities of either U.S. Congress or state legislatures are needed to pass an amendment, getting one reformist candidate elected here and another one there won’t allow for fundamental change.
One way concerned civic groups have been fighting big money politics is by encouraging their cities to pass resolutions against it. Across North Carolina, nine cities – Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Asheville, and Durham among them – have done exactly that. Though a largely symbolic gesture, it is a necessary first step to showing frustrated voters across the country that they are not alone in their fight against CU.
Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has been working with residents of Greenville on passing a council resolution here. Contacting your city council representative or attending council meetings is the best way to demonstrate support for the initiative. Council members have been sympathetic toward the message against Citizens United but they are hesitant to pass the resolution without an outlay of support from their constituents.
Griffin Bur is a student at UNC-CH and a summer intern with Democracy NC.
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