Illinois activists dropped off petitions with 60,000 signatures to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk’s (R-IL) Chicago office Wednesday, demanding that the lawmaker support legislation that would pave the way for a constitutional amendment to effectively overturn the 2010 Citizens United decision by the United States Supreme Court.
“Seventy-four percent of Illinois citizens say we want to get big money corruption out of our politics,” Benjamin Singer, campaign director for Common Cause Illinois, told a crowd of about 60 people in Federal Plaza. “We want to get outside special interests out and voters in. Senator Kirk has been a champion, we need Senator Kirk now,” said Singer.
The Democracy For All Amendment (S.J.Res.19), would give power to both Congress and the states to regulate the raising and spending of money and set limits on election spending. Critics of the Citizens United ruling say the decision, which ruled that political spending is a protected form of speech, has overwhelmed elections with an influx of money from wealthy donors and damaged democracy.
“A long time ago, my mom told me that money couldn’t buy happiness, that it couldn’t buy love,” said Ron Honse, a representative from the Communication Workers of America, one of the many groups pushing the legislation. “But I can tell you one thing she was wrong about. Money can buy influence, money can buy access in politics, to the halls of Congress and to our elected representatives.”
Since the Supreme Court decision came down four years ago, election spending has skyrocketed nationwide. According to Open Secrets, which tracks campaign spending, U.S. dollars spent on elections in 2012 amounted to $7 billion, which almost $1 billion more than what was spent during the 2008 presidential election cycle and is nearly double the amount that was spent during the 2010 mid-terms. Research from the Sunlight Foundation shows that more than $2 billion came from outside political committees, and in some cases those committees spent more than the actual candidates did in their races for office.
Outside spending groups, which many times keep their identities secret, have already been pouring money into the 2014 election. According to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, an analysis of just nine Senate races showed $72 million worth of independent expenditures. In 2010, outside spending for all 37 Senate races totaled $97 million.
“Political money is not necessarily speech,” said Singer. “We can get up here, get on media, we don’t need to be spending hundreds of millions of dollars. But when a few special interests are doing that, it drowns out the ability of regular people to do this.”
Polling shows that a majority of Americans were unhappy with the Citizens United ruling. In May, a poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Democracy Corps showed that 80 percent of Americans were opposed to the ruling. Two years ago, three quarters of Illinoisans supported a bipartisan resolution in the Illinois General Assembly urging Congress to pass an amendment that would reverse the Citizens United decision, which passed the state legislature last year. Sixteen other states have passed similar resolutions, along with more than 500 cities. Nationwide, there have been several federal resolutions to overturn Citizens United and organizations supporting the amendment have collected three million signatures on petitions calling for an overturning of the decision.
The Democracy for All Amendment, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), has 48 co-sponsors, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). The resolution is expected to go up for a vote in the Senate on September 8. Though Kirk has expressed support for similar campaign finance reforms, a staffer who accepted the petitions declined to say whether or not he would support the amendment or how he might vote.
Meanwhile, activists say the decision has created an unfair advantage for the right when it comes to the U.S. political system.
“What do you think would happen if you woke up some morning with a burning desire to talk to your Congressperson and you called and said I’ve been able to raise $20,” said Honse. “What if you had $100,000, do you think that would work? If you come and say you’ve aggregated a million dollars, you might get a call back and your voice is going to mean just a little bit more than that person with $20. That’s not how our system is supposed to work.”