As many of us take time this weekend to celebrate the man whose name is synonymous with the fight for civil rights in America, we also note the third anniversary of Citizens United v FEC, the Supreme Court decision which effectively devalued our greatest right of all—the right to have our vote mean something.
In favoring Citizens United the Supreme Court effectively cemented the move from “one person, one vote” to “one dollar, one vote.” An explanation from the Stampede website reminds us, though, that the issue didn’t begin just three years ago, but has roots much deeper: “The ruling that money is free speech comes from the Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo (1976) which upheld limits on contributions directly to campaigns.” The site also reminds us that corporate rights have slowly expanded over recent decades. “These cases built up over time and slowly added more and more rights for corporations. This Wikipedia article traces that history pretty well. Granting rights to corporations hit its high point under Citizens United, but it didn’t start there…”
But it needs to end there.
The Citizens United decision—now the current culmination of these trends—must somehow be overturned; in doing so, we have the opportunity to undo years and years of continued voter devaluation.
Caution is warranted, however, in how we do that. A Supreme Court decision is not legislation; it cannot be repealed or undone on its face. Such change requires a new, broadly applied decision or a constitutional amendment, and either (or both) avenues are mined with misunderstanding. The largest of these (as a Washington Post article written on the decision’s second anniversary reminds us), is that—despite the convenient sound bite, the Supreme Court did not do what many think they did. ”Citizens United did not hold corporations to be persons, and the court has never said corporations deserve all the constitutional rights of humans,” the article says. “The Fifth Amendment’s right to be free from self-incrimination, for example, does not extend to corporations.” In a clear and hyperbole-free explanation, the author, Kent Greenfield, goes on to write that
The question in any given case is whether protecting the association, group or, yes, corporation serves to protect the rights of actual people. Read fairly, Citizens United merely says that banning certain kinds of corporate expenditures infringes the constitutional interests of human beings. The court may have gotten the answer wrong, but it asked the right question.
Another reason to protect corporate rights is to guard against the arbitrary and deleterious exercise of government power. If, for example, the Fifth Amendment’s ban on government “takings” did not extend to corporations, the nationalization of entire industries would be constitutionally possible. The Fourth Amendment prohibits the FBI from barging into the offices of Google without a warrant and seizing the Internet history of its users. A freedom of the press that protected only “natural persons” would allow the Pentagon to, say, order the New York Times and CNN to cease reporting civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
In my many discussions on the topic, one of the things that I’ve learned is that only a small percentage of people dismayed by the decision actually seem to understand it. Instead, they understand the conventional wisdom, that the decision somehow “defined” corporations as people. It did not, and we must take care that the push to overturn Citizens United does not become instead a push to overcome an internet meme, an overly simplified attempt to undo a moral wrong by adjusting the social fabric. A hastily constructed amendment, for example, may open the door to just the kinds of unintended consequences that Greenfield illuminates, while sloppily written legislation or a too-narrow court case may lead the Court along paths we cannot yet predict.
Instead, we should focus on one key issue: money should not—ever—be construed as speech. This single point is fundamentally what changes whether my vote means as much as yours. This narrower point provides a focus for strategy and planning.
Fortunately, as we denounce this third anniversary we are also rapidly building a groundswell of people who understand the nuances—and dangers—of allowing the Citizens United decision to stand. Organizations like Rootstrikers, Stampede, Coffee Party USA, Public Citizen, and many, many more (most fueled by grassroots volunteers) are working diligently to create and support strategies and activities that will eventually lead us back to “one person/one vote.” These strategies cover all the bases, a multi-faceted approach that serves many purposes, not the least of which is to keep this issue in the news and on the airwaves by reminding people that we are the citizens, united.
You and I may differ on many things. We may differ on who should be taxed, and why. We may differ on the role of education in our society. We may differ on the importance and value of unions, or the military, or marriage. Disagreements between us may even include foreign policy, the arts, gun control, or abortion. But the one thing I’m confident we both agree on most strongly is this: When we enter a voting booth, we want our vote to mean just as much as anyone else’s. As much as the farmer in Kansas or the social worker in Des Moines. As much as the college student in Florida or the movie extra in California. As much as the librarian in St. Paul and the blackjack dealer in Reno. As much as your sister’s. Or my mother’s. Or my cousin’s.