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The Implications of Citizens United for Independent Candidates

2 min read
Citizens United
GoodParty.org Politics Team · Sep 22, 2023

Pop Quiz: What is the single most important issue on the minds of voters during the election cycle? 

Most of us would echo James Carville and say that “It’s the economy, stupid,” and a quick Google search of that question bears this out. However, research conducted by the State Department lists anti-corruption and transparency as the top issues facing our government and the nation as a whole. 

After all, how can we trust that our representatives truly stand for us when we don’t know where their money comes from and the extent to which it influences policy? 

That brings us to Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision that many feel caused more harm to the political process than any other decision in modern history, at least in terms of equity and transparency in campaign finance..

In fact, few Supreme Court decisions have sparked as much controversy and debate as the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010. This landmark decision had profound implications for campaign finance, reshaping the way political campaigns are funded and fought.

Join us as we take a closer look at this controversial decision, discuss its impact on campaign finance, and investigate how independent/third-party candidates can leverage the pros and cons of CU to highlight trust and transparency in their own political campaigns. 

Understanding Citizens United

In a nutshell, the Citizens United case revolved around a nonprofit corporation called Citizens United, which produced a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) prohibited the film's distribution, citing campaign finance laws that restricted corporate spending on political advertisements.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled in favor of Citizens United, asserting that corporate spending on political campaigns constituted protected speech under the First Amendment. This decision had several immediate and long-term consequences for the American political landscape.

In essence, it stated that corporations are people, too, and subject to the same free speech protections as you and me. It also opened the floodgates to dark money influence and reduced transparency in campaign finance. 

Whether this is good or bad depends on how you view money in politics. Let us first take a look at the rationale behind proponents of the decision.

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Positive Aspects of Citizens United

Defenders of Citizens United feel that the decision benefits political campaigning in three ways:

1. It protects free speech. The Citizens United decision affirmed the First Amendment rights of corporations and labor unions to spend money on political campaigns. Advocates argue that this upholds the principle of free speech, allowing organizations to express their political views without censorship.

Bear in mind that such discussions overlook the fact that corporations/workers and union governing boards/membership often have different outlooks and priorities when it comes to representation. 

2. It empowers interest groups. Interest groups, including advocacy organizations and Super PACs (Political Action Committees), gained more influence in the political arena. They can now raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support candidates who align with their objectives.

Consider that not all interest groups are bad news for constituents. The real question is whose interests do they represent? There is a huge difference between an interest group that advocates for education, climate change mitigation, or voter’s rights and one that supports deregulation or promotes the interests of Big Pharma over people. 

3. It promotes more competitive elections. There are those who believe that CU has increased financial flexibility, which leads to more competitive elections. Candidates who were financially disadvantaged in the past can now attract funding from various sources. This makes the political landscape more vibrant and diverse.

However, lack of transparency and the potential influx of dark money calls into question where the money is coming from and the extent to which this funding influences policy. 

Negative Implications of Citizens United

For every perceived positive of this Supreme Court decision, there are several negatives. These could have wider and more far-reaching effects on elections and influence once candidates are in office. 

Many detractors believe that Citizens United:

1. Increases the influence of Big Money. Critics argue that the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to massive corporate and special interest spending in politics. This has led to concerns that wealthy donors can exert disproportionate influence over elected officials.

2. Erodes trust and political accountability. The rise of Super PACs and dark money groups makes it challenging to trace the source of campaign contributions. This lack of transparency can erode political accountability, leaving voters in the dark about who is truly funding campaigns.

3. Leads to increased polarization and negative campaigning. Some studies suggest that the increased role of Super PACs has fueled negative campaigning and political polarization. Candidates are often pressured to adopt more extreme positions to attract funding, potentially hindering cooperation and compromise in government.

One thing we can all agree on is that polarization has reached critical mass in America. Not only are the voters more divided than at any time in recent history, lack of trust and divisions within government lead to stagnation and lack of progress. 

But, talk of the negative implications of Citizens United is more than just a rhetorical exercise. We’ve already experienced them in real life. 

Case Studies: Unmasking the Impact of Citizens United

Citizens United was intended to impact campaign finance on a national level. However, we’ve experienced a trickle-down effect that impacts access to funding and affects transparency in elections up and down the ballot. 

For one thing, it completely neutralizes previous attempts at campaign finance reform, such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (aka, the McCain-Feingold Act). The Supreme Court has further reduced transparency for non-profit disclosure with decisions like Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, which struck down California’s disclosure requirements for non-profit organizations and could have a ripple effect in other states.

Citizens United has also had a direct effect on:

1. The 2012 Presidential Election: The 2012 presidential election witnessed the full-scale impact of Citizens United, with Super PACs pouring millions into campaigns. For example, the pro-Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future, spent over $150 million in support of Mitt Romney, shaping the election's discourse.

2. State-Level Elections in Montana: Montana, known for its history of campaign finance reform, faced challenges after Citizens United. The state's century-old ban on corporate political spending was challenged, leading to an influx of outside spending that influenced local elections.

3. The Rise of Super PACs: Organizations like Priorities USA Action and Crossroads GPS emerged as prominent Super PACs, demonstrating the new-found power of these entities in shaping election outcomes.

While the majority opinion written about Citizens United touts the decision as championing free speech and competition, concerns about the influence of big money and political accountability persist. The state of New York is tackling the issue head-on and helping independent candidates through initiatives like dollar-for-dollar donation matching with small donors.

However, independent and third-party candidates can navigate the pros and cons of the Citizens United decision and potentially use it to their advantage by employing creative strategies and focusing on grassroots engagement. 

Here are some actionable strategies for independent campaigns:

1. Emphasize Grassroots Fundraising: Independent and third-party candidates can focus on building a strong base of small-dollar donors. This approach reduces their reliance on large corporate or dark money contributions and can help maintain their independence from big donors.

2. Talk About Transparency and Accountability: To address concerns about dark money, candidates can prioritize transparency by voluntarily disclosing their campaign donors. This can build trust with voters and demonstrate a commitment to open and accountable campaign finance practices.

3. Highlight Independence: Independent candidates can emphasize their non-affiliation with major parties, positioning themselves as alternatives to the two-party system. This independence can appeal to voters looking for alternatives to the political establishment.

4. Champion Campaign Finance Reform: Candidates can make campaign finance reform a central part of their platforms. By advocating for changes to the current system, they can connect with voters who are concerned about the influence of money in politics.

5. Mobilize Volunteers and Grassroots Activists: Building a strong volunteer and grassroots activist network can help independent and third-party candidates compete with major parties. Volunteers can provide valuable campaign support, from canvassing to phone banking, reducing the need for extensive advertising spending.

6. Forge Alliances with Issue Advocacy Groups: Candidates can align themselves with issue advocacy groups that share their policy goals. These groups may have the resources and expertise to run issue-based campaigns that indirectly benefit the candidate.

7. Target Niche Issues and Communities: Focusing on specific niche issues or underserved communities can help independent and third-party candidates build dedicated and passionate support bases. These supporters may be more inclined to donate and volunteer for a candidate who champions their cause.

8. Utilize Digital and Social Media: Leveraging digital and social media platforms can be a cost-effective way for independent and third-party candidates to reach a broader audience. Engaging content and targeted online advertising can help campaigns maximize their impact with limited resources.

9. Participate in Debates and Forums: Independent and third-party candidates should actively seek opportunities to participate in debates and forums alongside major party candidates. These events can provide exposure and a platform to present their ideas to a wider audience.

Get Help With Your Campaign

While the Citizens United decision has presented challenges for independent and third-party candidates, they are not insurmountable. By emphasizing grassroots engagement, transparency, and strategic alliances, you can build a highly competitive campaign and potentially leverage the advantages of the current campaign finance landscape to your benefit.

GoodParty.org can help by providing guidance and resources that will take your campaign from volatile to viable in no time. Join us in our efforts to break the two-party system and create an America that works for all of us instead of the 1%. 

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Electoral Reform
Independent Candidates
Political Dysfunction
How to Run for Office
Campaign Finance
Independent Movement
Citizens United
By GoodParty.org Politics Team
The GoodParty.org politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.