Imagine going to the grocery store. You stop in to get your milk, your bread and eggs. But something is different this time. While buying your breakfast for the next morning, you get a nonstop sales pitch for the upcoming elections. Down one aisle is a TV telling you who to vote for in the upcoming city council election. With your receipt, the cashier gives you a brochure for a candidate running for Congress and with it a coupon for $25 off your next visit if you sign a supporter card. On your way out the door, you see a banner across the front of the building advertising a rally the next day with the state's gubernatorial candidate and the CEO of the store.
What if you were a Republican shopper and all the candidates being pushed were Democrats? Or vice versa? What if every Wal-Mart supported Sarah Palin and every Starbucks backed Harry Reid? Even if your 401K owned stock in Bank of America you couldn't stop them from flooding the airwaves with ads attacking the candidate you support for president, paid for with your own retirement nest egg.
This is not some fairy tale or even hyperbole. It's what could now pass as reality thanks to today's Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The 5-4 decision casts a mortal blow to accountability, transparency and ethical standards for corporate electoral activity by dismantling century-old restrictions and in the name of the 'free speech rights' of corporations.
Now, if you are a 'corporate person' (aka a CEO or corporate official), you are free to hit the corporate ATM and spend whatever money it takes to elect the candidates of your choice. No longer are Wall Street CEOs limited to using their tax-payer financed bonuses to contribute to campaigns or 527s, now they can just take your tax money in the front door and truck it straight to the campaign out the back.
Let's be clear: corporations have a long history of shilling out a lot of cash for political activities, letting their employees know exactly which candidates they want to win or lose elections and paying heavy sums for attack ads, direct mail and other forms of public communication through their PACs. But unlimited corporate electoral spending - the likes of which the Court just ruled in favor of - threatens to distort and, ultimately delegitimize, our democracy.
Some may argue that this decision also allows unions like SEIU to spend more money on campaigns as well. We are proud of the voluntary contributions that the nurses, security officers, childcare workers and other hardworking members of SEIU provide to SEIU COPE so they can have a voice in the electoral process, but that is what they are, voluntary contributions. Spending a few extra dollars is not worth allowing elections to be decided in boardrooms instead of polling booths and don't think for one minute we'll ever compete dollar for dollar with bottomless corporate coffers whose giving is coordinated through the Chamber of Commerce.
Our country's democratic process was meant to protect the people and their voice not corporations profit margins. Today's decision makes clear the immediate need for an effective system for public funding and other reforms of federal elections.
The impact of this decision should not be underestimated; instead, we must get to work and send a very loud message to corporate America: you cannot buy our votes. SEIU's 2.2 million members are committed to that cause and will press for a quick remedy to the unfortunate consequences of this Supreme Court decision.