In the case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the nation’s high court erased decades of federal election law by removing the cornerstone of campaign finance law. In a close 5-4 decision, the court ruled that donors are allowed to give as much as they want to political candidates, parties and committees. According to the slim majority, such limits violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech.
The decision is like Citizens United on steroids. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court held that the government may not ban corporate spending in elections, and that the government has no business regulating political speech.
“If Citizens United opened a door,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said from the bench, “today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate.”
This latest decision does not affect the $2,600 limit donors may give to each candidate in the primaries, and $2,600 in the general elections. However, it does eliminate the $123,200 aggregate limit that donors were able to contribute per election cycle— $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to state and local parties.
The civil rights community reacted to the decision. “Today, the Supreme Court has done the American people and our democracy a tremendous disservice by further opening the floodgates of big money into our elections,” said Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP Senior Advisor to the President & CEO and Senior Director for Voting Rights. “This ruling gives millionaires and billionaires a tighter grip of influence on our election process, silencing more and more ordinary Americans at the ballot box. This fight is not over. Those who value democracy will continue to combat the oversized influence of money in politics.”
Increasingly, America is not the land of opportunity, it is the land of the haves and the have nots. The gap between rich and poor is at record levels, with the top 10 percent controlling over half the income in 2012, with the top 1 percent claiming a record 19.3 percent. And 95 percent of all income gains since the end of the Great Recession have gone to the top 1 percent of Americans. Unfortunately, America’s campaign financing system will now mirror our unfair, lopsided and unequal economic system. And in elections, that means you’ve got to pay to play.
Over the years, those who try to steal our votes have devised more ingenious and diabolical methods to make that theft happen. They tried poll taxes and literacy tests back in the Jim Crow days. More recently it has been voter ID requirements that disproportionately impact the poor, the elderly, students and voters of color, or simply purging people from the rolls. There’s no shame in their game.
But now, those who believed they were not impacted by voter suppression techniques because they did not fit the right demographic should be concerned. The McCutcheon decision is like a voter ID requirement, except that only a relative handful of people— millionaires and billionaires, that is—can afford to buy it.
This is serious business. The court has opened the gates wide open, and the next step is that the U.S. campaign system becomes a system of legalized bribery, where those with the most money choose the winners and buy the laws they want passed. We need to get it straight: Corporations are not people, money is not free speech, and money should not have unlimited influence in our elections. Until we understand this, we will continue to live in an oligarchy, not a democracy.
So in the end, you may go to the polling place, step into the booth and cast your ballot. And they may very well count your vote. But your vote really doesn’t count when they’re counting someone else’s money in the back room, the person who actually bought the election in the first place. Is that what we want?
Ultimately, we must ask the question: Where do poor people stand in a democracy where the election goes to the highest bidder? The answer is nowhere.