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The right to buy and election


If you believe money is speech, corporations are people, and the wealthiest 1 percent are a persecuted minority, then you will love the recent Supreme Court decision on campaign finance (McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission) and where it is pointing our political process.

To understand the meaning and impact of the decision, we have to look back at what the Supreme Court has already done to increase the power of big money in national politics. Then we have to look forward to what, given the signals, the court intends to do next.

The guiding principle certainly seems to be getting rid of any limits on election spending by mega-donors.

Standard PACs can be directly affiliated with candidates and campaigns, but only individuals can make contributions to a PAC. Additionally, there are limits on the size of contributions made to a PAC and on those made by the group to a candidate or party.

With the Citizens United decision in 2010, the Supreme Court gave a green light to wealthy donors giving unlimited amounts of money to super PACs. While super PACs cannot make contributions to candidates’ campaigns or parties, they can engage in unlimited political spending — supposedly independently of the campaigns.

But there are ways around that. In some instances, candidates have had longtime staff resign, then form and run the super PACs. Using super PACs, mega-donors can, and have, carpet-bombed opposition candidates without the benefiting candidates themselves being held accountable for the negative campaigns.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the influence of a single contributor will be “significantly diluted by all the contributions from others,” and thus lessen the chances for corruption.

However, in practice during the 2012 presidential election, the bulk of contributors to super PACs came from a handful of anonymous donors.

And now, the Supreme Court has whisked away the total limit on how many candidates, affiliated committees and standard PACs an individual can contribute to: While there remains a limit on how much money can be given to any one candidate, committee or PAC, there is no limit on the number of contributions.

Before the decision, an individual donor could only give a total of $123,200 to political candidates and committees during any two-year election cycle. After last week’s Supreme Court decision, a single donor will be able to give $3.6 million dollars in this same two-year election cycle.

In the 2012 election cycle, spending by non-political groups topped $1 billion, and super PACS (aided by the older Citizens United case), contributed $600 million to that final tally.

Citizens United also ushered in a new era of “dark money” groups — nonprofits that can legally unleash unlimited expenditures from anonymous contributors, such as for-profit corporations. These dark money groups spent $256 million in 2012.

This case was decided by the narrowest margin, 5 to 4. In his dissent from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer said that if the Citizens United decision “opened a door,” this decision “may well open a floodgate.”

Does anyone really think that before this latest decision — or even before the Citizens United decision — people who could afford to contribute $3.6 million to political campaigns were being denied their freedom of speech?

As a former campaign strategist and manager, it’s difficult for me to understand what’s driving Chief Justice Roberts and his colleagues to allow so much money into our political process. Campaigns are about reaching people and educating them. While it requires resources, it doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) take a billion dollars to win public office.

What is at stake is the basic American principle that, when it comes to elections for public office, we should all have an equal voice — one person, one vote. But, in campaign contributions, one person’s voice is amplified into potentially unlimited votes. We already give the wealthy a proverbial megaphone in the political process; these decisions give them control over real TV airwaves. The sliver of the population that can afford to make millions of dollars in campaign contributions should not be able to make their money speak so loud that that they drown out the rest of us.

In a free society, there are some infringements on free speech, especially when balancing against competing interests — like the transparency of democratic elections. Just as free speech does not include “the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” free speech in most states also does not include the right to give campaign leaflets less than 30 to 100 feet from the polling places.

(Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.)

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