By Alison Shim
With this past 2012 presidential election, many voters have failed to recognize the impact campaign spending has had on the votes they cast come Election Day. While whether or not spending or negative advertisements shown in the media actually alter the course of the election has constantly been under question, many are now realizing the significant harmful effects of a Supreme Court ruling that changed the way campaigns were run forever.
Back in 2010, the Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission altered the course of campaign spending by upholding that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations or unions. Citizens United, a non-profit group, wanted to air a film called “Hilary: The Movie” attacking Hilary Clinton during television broadcast, an apparent violation of the McCain-Feingold Act. The Citizens United ruling ultimately gave corporations the power to exercise their freedom of speech as openly as any individual citizen. In turn, corporations began to abuse this right to freedom of press and thus began the rise of Super Political Action Committees, commonly known as Super PACs. With this drastic and daunting surge in unlimited corporate spending, a vicious cycle in which the wealthy were consistently muffling out the voices of the poor began to develop through every election process since.
In this past 2012 election cycle, outside groups spent an estimated $970 million, according to Federal Election Commission data, and the increase has been driven by rapidly increased spending among ‘super PACs’ that can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors due to the Citizens United Decision. Overall, the Sunlight Foundation attributes 78% of the 400% increase in outside spending since 2008 directly to Citizens United, demonstrating the direct impact Citizens United had on campaign spending. A small number of wealthy, unrepresentative Americans disproportionately take advantage of the independent expenditure rules and Super PACs made possible by Citizens United, crippling the election. As the wealthy take up airtime at the premium, those of the lower and middle class are left with more expensive and fewer slots for representation in the media, skewing the true democratic nature of presidential elections.
Alex Bowie of Metro Philadelphia concludes that 97% of Super PAC contributions by individuals came from just 1,900 people, and 12% of total contributions have come from corporations. He furthers that with the rise in power of corporations, few wealthy individuals became the loudest voices heard in advertisement. Bob Edgar of Common Cause finds that over 300 Super PACs and wealthy donors are muffling the voices of political participants by taking airtime at a premium and consequently making participation more expensive. Thus, the Huffington Post notes that mega donors are able to amplify their voices to an astounding 3,100 times the volume of small donors.
The Brave New Foundation also establishes the suppressing impact the Citizens United decision had on voters, primarily through Super PACs like the Koch brother’s Americans for Prosperity. Following the 2010 election, the billionaire Koch brothers paid $200 million to their Super PAC Americans for Prosperity, which helped Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and 7 other states approve fraudulent obstacles to voting. Overall, they have funded proposed voting suppression bills in 34 other states to thwart 21 million Americans from voting. Disengaging voters from the electoral process is deemed the most crippling impact of the election post-Citizens United.
As overall campaign spending by corporations took a drastic surge, negative advertisements relapsed by these corporations became more prominent as well. An empirical analysis by Wesleyan University finds that after Citizens United, negative advertisements by outside interest groups have increased by 340%. These ads are successful at winning candidates more votes because they are often blatantly incorrect or misrepresent information in a partisan manner. The Annenberg Public Policy Center quantifies that 85% of spending goes towards ads with at least one false assertion. Furthermore, the Brennan Center reports that organizations avoid accountability for their lies after Citizens United because of the easing of restrictions and that half of meaningful outside spending now comes from shadow organizations. Through these shadow organizations, corporations are able to hide their identity and blamelessly fund these false advertisements. Resulting from this is decreased voter turnout, as the American Political Science Review finds that because inappropriately negative advertisements depress people’s respect for both candidates, exposure to negative advertisements dropped intentions to vote by 5%. Citizens United led to an increase in skeptical voters now wary of the integrity of the U.S. electoral system as well as a blatantly misinformed public.
Overall, every year post-Citizens United experiences yet another increase in campaign spending and with it, the inherent crippling of our electoral system’s integrity and participation.