On 6th Anniversary of Citizens United, Reforms Moving Across the Country

Six years after the Supreme Court’s decision, voters and legislators are taking action


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Thursday, January 21, marks the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a case that struck down campaign finance regulations and opened federal, state, and local elections to increased political spending and less disclosure. In the six years since Citizens United was decided, voters and advocates have won clean election victories across the country, with significant reforms within reach over the coming year.

“Six years after Citizens United, super PACs, mega-donors, and secret-money groups have turned our elections into a playground for wealthy donors and special interests.” said U.S. PIRG Democracy Campaign Director Dan Smith. “It doesn’t have to be that way. A vast majority of Americans from every part of the political spectrum want to overturn Citizens United, and in state after state, they’re speaking out and taking action. From Maine to Seattle, lawmakers, advocates, and voters are winning reforms that ensure everyday voters are in the driver’s seat of our elections. It’s time for us to make government work for ordinary Americans.”

“Six years after the misguided Citizens United decision, everyday people of all political stripes and backgrounds have come together to take back our government from Washington insiders and wealthy special interests,” said Congressman John Sarbanes (D-Md.), a leading reformer in Congress. “In places like Maine and Seattle, voters have endorsed citizen-funded elections, and around the country, polling data shows that strong majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans want similar reforms for Congressional elections. I’m confident that in the years ahead, we’ll see even greater momentum and energy building at the local, state and federal levels to fight the corrosive influence of big-money politics and return to a government of, by, and for the people.”

Campaign spending, donor influence continues to grow

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, politicians from both major parties have increasingly relied on contributions from super PACs and organizations that spend undisclosed money on elections. So far in the 2016 presidential race, spending by outside groups is four times what it was at the same point in 2012. According to reports by the New York Times, half of all early spending in the 2016 race has come from just 158 families and the corporations they control.

In states and cities, voters chip away at Citizens United

Sixteen states and over 600 communities nationwide have called for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. Polls show that a vast majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents support overturning the decision. This year, California and Washington State may put their own referendum on the ballot asking voters whether they support overturning Citizens United.

In November of 2015, Maine and Seattle voters strongly approved clean election ballot measures to help refocus elections on ordinary people over special interests and mega-donors. Areas including D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles are now considering similar legislative and regulatory reforms to empower small donors in elections.

In 2016, President and SEC consider reforms

This December, U.S. PIRG joined a broad coalition of over 50 organizations to deliver one million petitions to the White House, urging the President to sign an Executive Order cracking down on secret political spending by federal contractors. Under current law, companies doing business with the federal government are not required to disclose the details of political contributions to 501(c)(4) groups and other organizations that spend money to influence elections. On Tuesday, January 19, the New York Times reported that President Obama is “seriously considering” an executive order that would require federal contractors to disclose their political contributions.

On Thursday, several U.S. senators will host a teleconference calling on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to shed light on secret political spending and help address the growing flood of big money in politics. Despite a rider tucked into the omnibus spending bill at the end of December, the SEC can work on a rule requiring publicly held companies to disclose details of their political spending.

“Americans want action to curb the influence of big money in our elections, and despite backroom deals made during last year’s budget negotiations, the SEC still has an opportunity to deliver that action,” said Elise Orlick Democracy Associate with U.S. PIRG. “It’s time to let our federal agencies do their job, and give voters a chance to find out who’s backing the candidates on their ballot.”

The SEC has received more than 1.2 million public comments in favor of a rule requiring disclosure of political spending, including from leading academics in securities law, investment managers and advisers, and a bipartisan grouping of former SEC Commissioners and Chairs.

In Congress, Members offer small donor solutions

Over 150 Members of the House have cosponsored Congressman John Sarbanes’s Government by the People Act, a bill to create a small donor empowerment program for House elections. The bill would encourage more Americans to participate in the process with a $25 refundable tax credit for small donations and would match contributions of $150 or less with limited public funds at a six-to-one ratio. In the upper chamber, Senator Dick Durbin has introduced the Fair Elections Now Act, which would create a similar system for Senate elections.

Mass mobilization highlights broad public support

This January, a broad coalition of organizations representing the labor, environmental, student, racial justice, civil rights and money in politics reform movements launched Democracy Awakening, a mobilization calling for voter protections and campaign finance reforms. The mobilization will feature an array of actions in April of 2016, including demonstrations, concerts, teach-ins, and a Rally for Democracy.

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U.S. PIRG, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.