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Martha Coakley Headshot

Giving Voice Back to the People

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In the two years since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, those of us who are concerned with the growing influence of special interests and corporations in our political process have seen our worst fears realized. Based on data gathered by OpenSecrets.org, a website that tracks money in American politics, spending by non-party committees during the 2010 Congressional elections (the first federal elections to occur after Citizens United) increased to approximately $304.7 million, four times the level of such spending in the 2006 Congressional elections.

Even more disturbing is the enormous increase in spending by outside groups not required to disclose their donors. In 2006, such groups spent approximately $875,000. During the 2010 elections, those groups spent an astonishing $133.3 million. That is over 150 times the amount spent in the 2006 elections and nearly double the amount spent during the 2008 Presidential and Congressional elections.

Now, in the 2012 election cycle, the amount of undisclosed and special interest money is increasing at an even more alarming rate. Indeed, in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, we have seen an unprecedented number of outside groups attacking candidates in the Republican presidential race. Many of these groups are so-called "Super PACs" that can receive unlimited corporate and special interest money. Although barred from coordinating with specific candidates, many Super PACs in fact support an individual candidate. Just this week, one casino tycoon donated five million dollars to a Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich that is being used to tear down his opponent's record. These instances in which one person can so greatly impact an election by writing a check is only going to increase.

What does this all mean? It means the influence and interests of the wealthy few will continue to further shout down the voices of everyone else. And because of the shadowy nature of these groups, it also means that a large portion of their advertising will take the form of negative attacks, which will only contribute to the increasingly hostile nature of our political discourse.

Given this unfortunate state of affairs, you may be wondering two things: How did we get here and, more importantly, what can we do to fix it?

With regard to the first question, the proliferation of Super PACs (which can accept unlimited funds but must disclose their donors) and 501(c) non-profit groups (which can accept unlimited funds and do not have to disclose their donors) is largely the result of the Citizens case. Prior to Citizens United, Congress' ability to regulate and restrict corporate political spending had been widely recognized for at least a century.

After Citizens United, all of that changed. Under the guise of the First Amendment and corporate personhood, the Supreme Court severely limited Congress' power to regulate corporate political spending and invalidated bipartisan, democratically-enacted restrictions on corporate behavior.

The good news is that we can do something about it. In the aftermath of Citizens United, activists from all walks of life have joined together to fight for the rights of the American people as opposed to corporations and either reverse or severely limit the decision's impact.

There is a national movement afoot to amend the Constitution to make clear that the First Amendment applies only to people and not corporations. Several proposed amendments have been introduced in Congress, including the so-called "People's Rights Amendment" introduced by Congressman James P. McGovern with bipartisan support. Further, at least 10 states, including Massachusetts, have introduced resolutions calling on Congress to pass one of these proposed amendments.

I was proud to join with 25 other state Attorneys General during the Citizens case in filing a brief urging the Supreme Court to leave the states' ability to regulate and restrict corporate political spending intact. And I am proud to be the first state Attorney General to call for passage of a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens decision.

During this campaign season, we are witnessing in real-time the growing influence of the wealthy few over everyone else. It is why I urge people to send a strong message that we will not allow special interests to commandeer our electoral process and support the Constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. It is time to put our political system back where it belongs: in the hands of the people.

Martha Coakley is the Attorney General of Massachusetts

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