The People Strike Back

On October 8, as the Supreme Court debated lifting the aggregate limit on campaign contributions, a growing democracy movement was out in full force in front of the Court and in cities across the country.

On Tuesday, during the oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, in which the petioners asked the Supreme Court to strike down the overall, or aggregate, limits on what an individual can give to all candidates and parties in an election cycle, Justice Ginsberg said the following:

It has been argued that these limits promote expression, promote democratic participation, because what they require the candidate to do is, instead of concentrating fund-raising on the super-affluent, the candidate would then have to try to raise money more broadly in the electorate. So that by having these limits you are promoting democratic participation, then the little people will count some, and you won’t have the super-affluent as the speakers that will control the elections.

As she posed this question to the litigators inside the Courtroom, the “little people,” were out in force in front of the Court at a rally organized by U.S. PIRG and People for the American Way, holding signs of, “Democracy is Not for Sale” and  “Stop Citizens United 2.”


The scene outside the Court. Photo courtesy of Ben Droz Photography

Citizens United: Part 2


Rally props Super PAC man and Ms. McCutcheon PAC vs. free speech and democracy.

There are some important distinctions between the limits that were argued over in McCutcheon versus those at stake four years ago in Citizens United v. FEC, the ruling that opened the floodgates on corporate spending in the elections and laid the groundwork for the creation of super PACs. Most importantly, at issue in McCutcheon are limits on contributions directly to candidates and parties whereas Citizens United dealt with “outside” spending, so-called uncoordinated independent expenditures. Holding that limits on campaign contributions are necessary to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption, the Supreme Court has never struck down a federal contribution limit.

Regardless of that distinction, Citizens United opened the floodgates for a handful of wealthy donors and well-heeled interests to dominate election funding and, should the Justices rule for the plaintiffs, McCutcheon would be more of the same. In fact, if the Court strikes down the aggregate limits we will see campaigns that look more and more like super PACs – that is, the majority of their money will come from just a handful of individuals.


In 2012, just 99 donors were responsible for nearly 60% of all individual contributions to super PACs. Source:  U.S. PIRG, Demos

When a handful of large donors can account for such a large portion of the funds spent on an election, it minimizes the voice of most Americans who can only afford to chip in $20, $50, or $100 to support candidates and it makes candidates more dependent on those elite donors.  The aggregate limit is already set so high that only a miniscule set of donors even bumps up against it, 1,219 in 2012, yet to lift it would significantly increase the clout of those few. In new research cited on the day of the arguments by the New York Times editorial board, U.S. PIRG and Demos projected that if the aggregate limit had not been in place in 2012, this set of 1,219 elite donors would have given about 150% of what all small donors gave to Obama and Romney combined.

Source: U.S. PIRG and Demos

All of this is made even more concerning when you consider that the type of spending that Citizens United affected only made up about 20% of the total pie in the record breaking $7 billion dollar 2012 election cycle. The other 80% remained under the limits at stake in McCutcheon, meaning that if the Court does toss aside precedent and for the first time strike down a federal contribution limit, the effect could be even more staggering.


Source: U.S. PIRG, Demos

Enough is Enough

On the day of oral arguments, when asked about the possible consequences of the McCutcheon case, President Obama said, “there aren’t a lot of functioning democracies around the world that work this way.”

This demonstrates recognition at the highest levels of what most Americans, the aforementioned “little people,” have long recognized in our guts. As he put it, “the latest case would go even further than Citizens United…What it means is ordinary Americans are shut out of the process.”

When addressing the crowd the at the rally on October 8th, I said that, beyond the differences in the types of limits at stake, the major difference between the oral arguments in Citizens United and the arguments on that day was all the people who were standing with us at the Court and across the country:

Citizens United and the resulting big money in the 2012 elections awoke a sleeping giant: the American public that knows when enough is enough.


Blair Bowie, U.S. PIRG, C-SPAN

In addition to many of the foremost campaign finance reform advocates, the rally featured a variety of leaders from across the issue spectrum and across the country.

Campaign finance reform leaders. (From left to right) top row: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President for Policy and Program, People for the American Way; Steve Cobble, Senior Political Advisor, Free Speech for People; Josh Silver, CEO, Represent.Us; middle row: Tara Malloy, Counsel, Campaign Legal Center; Nick Nyhart, President and CEO, Public Campaign; Rob Weissman, Executive Director, Public Citizen; bottom row: Mary Boyle, Vice President for Communications, Common Cause; Liz Kennedy, Counsel, Demos; Fred Wertheimer, President, Democracy 21. C-SPAN

The diversity of the speakers was a snapshot of the growing movement of Americans who have come to realize that when our voices are shut out of democracy, we lose ground on the protecting the people, places, and values that we care about most.

Craig L. Rice, Maryland State Director of the Young Elected Officials Network, pointed out that young, minority candidates for office often struggle because they lack access to the large donors that their opponents rely on to run a competitive campaign. A ruling allowing those large donors even more influence would be a blow to efforts to elect individuals more representative of their constituents. He said:

Money should not determine who serves in office. It is my hope that this nation will be one where candidates will not be judged by the amount of money in their campaign funds but by the content of their character.

Craig Rice, Young Elected Officials Network, C-SPAN

Matthew Segal, President of OurTime spoke on behalf of young people who have the most debt of any generation in history, pointing out that we do not have the funds to make campaign contributions on the scale of those who would benefit from a sweeping ruling in McCutcheon.  Unsurprisingly, we often lack the access and influence to steer the conversation in Washington towards policies that would help alleviate this burden and protect our future:

We cannot be expected to sit around and wait while our interests are ignored.

Matthew Segal, OurTime, C-SPAN

Tom Blackton, an 81 year old retired school teacher from Bath, Pennsylvania and leader with Center for Community Change, told a similar story from another generation’s perspective: as a senior citizen without the ability to make large campaign contributions, he is frustrated and feels his voice is not being heard when legislators advocate balancing the budget by cutting the social security which he has paid into for over sixty years:

I am here like many others to express my deepest concerns about the impact that the McCutcheon case could have on our democracy. What we seniors need is justice.


Tom Blackton, Retiree, Center for Community Change C-SPAN

David Borris, a small business owner from Northbrook, Illinois and an executive committee member at the Main Street Alliance, spoke about how big money in politics benefits the narrow interests of large industries, but harms true small businesses, saying:

Small business owners believe in earning loyalty from customers, not in buying it from candidates.


David Borris, Owner of Hel’s Kitchen in Northbrook, IL C-SPAN

Kica Matos, Director Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change, powerfully spoke against the domination of big money in politics, saying:

The moral outrage of rampant deportations, of children going hungry, of massive and seemingly permanent unemployment in many communities in this, the richest country in the world, is made all the more outrageous when the institutions supposed to serve justice and the people only conspire to make them more invisible. Giving unlimited power to the richest and most privileged among us is morally repulsive. It is an affront to our values and it is deeply un-American. We should not stand for this. I’m here with my brothers and sisters today to say enough: it’s time to take money out of politics and restore democracy.


Kica Matos, Center for Community Change C-SPAN

Courtney Hight director of the democracy program at the Sierra Club, Erich Picah, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, and Phil Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, spoke on behalf of environmentalists everywhere. According to Radford:

We’re here today because we need to send a clear message to the Supreme Court that we will not sit by while the dream of American democracy is torn up.


Phil Radford, Greenpeace Courtesy Ben Droz

Picah told the crowd:

Friends of democracy, friends of labor unions, friends of immigration reform, friends of people over money, friends of the earth, it’s time we make good and tell Congress, tell the Supreme Court that our democracy is not for sale… We cannot pass carbon regulations that protect the planet without campaign finance rules.

Erich Picah, Friends of the Earth C-SPAN

And Hight explained:

It is not a coincidence that when the amount of money in our political system has gone up, so have the number of crises our country faces. That’s because there are wealthy individuals, corporations, and special interests that benefit from dysfunction. When congress and our government don’t work it means there isn’t anyone to enforce the laws that protect us as workers, as citizens, and protect our water and our air from pollution.

More from the Sierra Club on McCutcheon v. FEC. And here.


Courtney Hight, Sierra Club C-SPAN

Larry Cohen, the President of the Communications Workers of America, described the rising of this broad democracy movement:

We’re tired of being on defense. It doesn’t mean we won’t stand up and fight back when we’re under attack, but imagine if all these organizations were working together on offense. Well, we are. Our membership together is more than 20 million and the question for all of us is can we make democracy the second most important issue we work on.


Larry Cohen, Communication Workers of America, Courtesy Ben Droz

More from CWA on McCutcheon v. FEC.

Rev. Dr. William Barber II, President of the NAACP North Carolina and the leader of the Moral Monday movement said,

When we talk about what money can do in North Carolina, it’s not theory. We know firsthand that when you undermine laws that guard against voter suppression and you undo regulations on the ability for corporations and individuals to spend unchecked amounts of money influence and infiltrate and literally infect the democratic process it has an extreme impact.


Rev. Dr. William Barber II, North Carolina NAACP, C-SPAN

Brendien Mitchell, a student at Howard University and fellow with YoungPeople4, powerfully and eloquently summarized the difference between the activism present outside the Court and the type of “activism” that Shaun McCutcheon claimed to be protecting inside the Court:

Where is the freedom of living in a government that is bought out by individuals who coin their corruptive spending donations as activism? Being an activist means that you understand that the true power of a political campaign rests with the people not with the dollar. As a college student I have not made any major donations to political campaigns but I am positive that I and many other students who traveled from DC to Ohio to get out the vote in 2012 did just as effective a job. While activism comes in many forms, it is not “activism” for an individual or a corporation to pour millions of dollars into the campaigns of politicians. Today we as young people gather to challenge any law or policy that undermines our ability to actively participate as citizens and we gather to say that this is our country and that in a case of money versus people the answer should be apparent: the people.


Brendien Mitchell, Student at Howard University, C-SPAN

“The People Will Not Be Shut Down”

Despite the on-going government shut down, four Congressional champions of campaign finance reform stopped by the rally to state their opposition to lifting the aggregate limits and encourage their colleagues to take action to get big money out of elections now. Rep. Jim McGovern (MA), Rep. Ted Deutch (FL), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) have introduced joint resolutions to amend the Constitution that would overturn Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo to clarify that money is not speech and corporations are not people. Rep. John Sarbanes (MD) has introduced legislation that would empower grassroots donors to make their voices heard and incentivize candidates to fundraise small contributions from their own constituents.

“Big money is calling the shots across the street [the Capitol] and that is in large part because of decisions being made in the decisions behind me [the Supreme Court]. We need Congress to get serious about campaign finance reform and take the big money out of the political system. We need the Supreme Court to understand that the people have the power in this country, not the corporations and millionaires and billionaires.” – Representative Jim McGovern


Representative Jim McGovern, MA, C-SPAN

“The best thing that we can do to restore faith in American democracy, to ensure the agenda is set in Washington is set by the men and women who can vote in our elections, is to make sure, one, that the people who can donate to our campaigns are citizens not corporations and, two, to make sure that the power of a very small minority cannot trump the power of the American people to restore our democracy.” – Representative Ted Deutch


Representative Ted Deutch, FL, Courtesy Ben Droz

“If we do not want to move this nation to a form of society where a handful of billionaires can determine the outcome of these elections, then it is imperative not only we overturn Citizens United, but we put a lid on how much people can contribute in elections. Freedom of speech, in my view, does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government.” – Senator Bernie Sanders


Blair Bowie and Senator Bernie Sanders, VT, Courtesy Ben Droz

“Do we want a government where the voices of everyday Americans can’t compete against the megaphones of the big donors? No we don’t. We want a government where the voices of every day Americans are heard.” – Representative John Sarbanes


Representative John Sarbanes, MD, Courtesy Ben Droz

These four champions eloquently laid out the case for campaign finance reform, and we know we need more elected officials following their lead by speaking up and taking action. That’s why immediately following the rally representatives of U.S. PIRG, Public Citizen, People for the American Way, Common Cause, Public Campaign, and Demos held a lunchtime training for over 20 activists, then hit the marble halls of the Capitol to talk to as many Members of Congress and staff as we could.

The asks were straightforward and four-fold:

1. Support amendments to the constitution that will allow us to reinstate reasonable, democratic limits on money in elections that ensure all citizens, regardless of the size of their wallets, can make their voices heard in politics.

2. Support legislation that will raise up the voices of small donors: create a tax credit so that all Americans have money in their pockets to direct towards candidates and match small contributions with public funds.

3. Support legislation that creates some level of democratic accountability for corporations that spend money on elections by allowing shareholders to decide if and when their money is used to support political causes.

4. Create rules that require all funds spent on elections to be disclosed so that the public will know who is trying to influence our votes.

We spoke with twenty-one Congressional offices, including conversations with Rep. Lujan-Grisham (NM) and Rep. Duckworth (IL), two more powerful advocates for reform.

Regardless of what the Supreme Court does in the McCutcheon case, Congress and federal agencies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission, must act now to protect our democracy. And it’s not just our federal government that can and should take action.

A Nationwide Outcry

Events on the day of oral arguments weren’t limited to Capitol Hill: all across the country citizens stood up to say enough is enough and to push their state and federal elected officials to take action to correct the skewing of our democracy.

In Iowa, Iowa PIRG, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, League of Women Voters, Sierra Club, Move to Amend, WILPF, Food & Water Watch, AFSCME Retired Workers and elected officials held an event outside the state house in Des Moines against lifting the aggregate limits and condemning the current course of campaign finance rulings at the Supreme Court.

The groups called on their state legislators to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.


Source: Des Moines Register

Additional coverage and here. The Daily Iowan’s editorial here.

In Washington, on the steps of the U.S. District Court in Seattle, WashPIRG’s Chris Esh;  State Senator Adam Kline, 37th Legislative District of Washington; Jake Faleschini, Campaign Director, Fair Elections Seattle (Prop 1, Seattle); Bill Moyer, Executive Director, Backbone Campaign; Negheen Kamkar, Editor in Chief, Washington Undergrad Law Review; and Dorothy Van Soest, Public Initiative Planning Workgroup, WAMEND spoke out against McCutcheon and encouraged Seattle voters to adopt public financing through the ballot in November.


Dorothy van Seost – Washington Coalition to Amend the Constitution; Negheen Kamkar – Editor in Chief, Washington Undergrad Law Review; Sen. Adam Kline – Washington State Senator, 37th District (sponsor of state resolution to overturn Citizens United); Chris Esh, WashPIRG; Bill Moyer – Executive Director, Backbone Campaign; Jake Faleschini – Campaign Director, Fair Elections Seattle (Seattle Prop 1)

In Wisconsin, WISPIRG, the Money Out, Voters In coalition, which represents over 30 local groups, and elected officials held a rally at the State Capitol in Madison. The groups urged the Supreme Court to uphold the aggregate limits and asked that their state officials pass a joint resolution that would put a question on the 2014 state-wide ballot asking whether or not Wisconsin should support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and allow for limits on big money in elections. Speakers included Bruce Speight, director of WISPIRG; State Rep. Chris Taylor; Mike McCabe, executive director of WI Democracy Campaign ED; Dave Pauly, CEO of Capital Insurance Companies; Logan Quinsley of South Central WI Move to Amend; and Lisa Subeck executive director of United Wisconsin ED.

Bruce Speight, WISPIRG, WKOW 27

Additional coverage and here.


Colorado Common Cause’s Elena Nunez and COPIRG’s Danny Katz

In Colorado, COPIRG and Colorado Common Cause used the opportunity of the McCutcheon case to release a scorecard reminding their congressional delegation that the people of the state resoundingly passed a ballot initiative in 2012 calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The groups released a statement saying:

Today the Supreme Court is considering a case that could INCREASE the amount of money special interests can pour in our elections by 5,744%. Last November, 74% of Coloradans approved Amendment 65 directing our members of Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics, but so far only 3 of our members have taken action.


In New Jersey, NJPIRG, the Overturn Citizens United Coalition, local Citizens, and the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club held a press conference at the state house to oppose lifting the aggregate limits and to encourage Congress to pass legislation to create a tax incentive for small donors to give to candidates.

“McCutcheon will supersize the influence of big out of state donors making government less responsive to New Jersey voters. One big reason that Americans’ confidence in Congress is at a historic low is that they see their representatives are more responsive to big money donors than to regular voters,” said NJPIRG’s Peter Skopec.

New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel says lifting the limits on campaign contributions could hurt the environment:

 We believe we can never have clean air and clean water without clean government. We are concerned that the only thing green that’s going to happen, whether it‘s in Washington or in the Statehouse, the only thing green about our elected officials will be the money they get from PACs and from SuperPACs.

Source WBGO


Susannah Newman, activist and founder of New Jersey for the Overturn of Citizens United; Peter Skopec, NJPIRG; Myrna Fichtenbaum, activist with MoveOn from Lawrenceville; Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club; and Eric Symborski, activist from Hunterdon County

Additional coverage and here.

In Michigan, PIRGIM, CWA, Common Cause Michigan, and Progress Michigan held a press conference at the Federal Courthouse in Lansing urging the Court to uphold the aggregate limit.


CWA’s Mike Schulte, Common Cause MI’s Melanie McElroy, and PIRGIM’s Eric Mosher

Video of the event here

 In Connecticut, ConnPIRG, AFL-CIO, Common Cause in Connecticut, Communication Workers of America, Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Connecticut Education Association, Connecticut Working Families, Food and Water Watch Connecticut, GMO Free Connecticut, the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, the Sierra Club, and Service Employees International Union held a rally and press conference to push back on McCutcheon outside the Federal Courthouse in Hartford.

The event in Hartford, CT, Source: The Connecticut Education Association

Coverage here, here, here, and here.

In Ohio, OhioPIRG, the Communications Workers of America, Common Cause Ohio, Move to Amend,  Progress Ohio, and the Ohio Sierra Club spoke out in support of protecting the integrity of our democracy at a rally outside the Supreme Court of Ohio in downtown Columbus.

Michael Greenman of Move to Amend Columbus Chapter, Frank Matthews of Communication Workers of America, Bryan Stewart of OhioPIRG, Sam Gresham of Common Cause Ohio, Jed Thorp of Sierra Club Ohio Chapter

In Missouri, MOPIRG, the Missouri Sierra Club, Saint Louis NAACP, and the Vice-Chair of the Missouri House Ethics Committee spoke out against big money in politics on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.

More here.

Caroline Pufalt, conservation chair with Missouri Sierra Club; Alec Sprague of MOPIRG; Adolphus Pruitt, President of Saint Louis NAACP; Rory Ellinger, Representative for University City and Vice-Chair of the Ethics Committee in the Missouri House of Representatives

In Florida, Dalyn Houser of FloridaPIRG, Dr. Manuel Sykes the President of the NAACP St. Petersburg Chapter , Timothy Heberlein the Political Director of Florida Consumer Action Network and Jose Cardon a student from the University of Florida held a press conference outside the Tampa City Hall.

Video of event here. Coverage here.

In Oregon, OSPIRG worked to ensure that the public understands big money in politics as a non-partisan issue by publishing an op-ed with Knute Buehler, a Republican candidate for Secretary of State, and Carmen Kulp, the founder of the Columbia County Tea Party.

In Massachusetts, MassPIRG and Common Cause MA released a statement condemning lifting the aggregate limits. They followed up with a letter to the editor in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.

The People v. Money

Back at the Supreme Court, Justice Roberts seemed to be looking for some middle ground between striking down all aggregate limits and letting them stand, perhaps by striking down only the aggregate limit on gifts to candidates.

Regardless of what the Court does in McCutcheon, we are already headed in the wrong direction if we want to preserve the voices of all people and promote political equality in our democracy. To turn the car around, we need Congress and the states to take up the solutions available and ultimately to overturn the Court’s misguided jurisprudence in Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo which allows special interests to dominate our elections.

At the end of the rally in D.C., Represent.Us organized a tug of war between money (individuals dressed in dollar bill suits) and the people. The Supreme Court may deal another blow to our democracy if it strikes down any contribution limits in McCutcheon, but as with the tug of war, if we keep working together and building our movement, ultimately, we know the little people will prevail.