Unhappy Anniversary, Democracy... But Together We Can​ Fix You

Six years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court created a Wild West of campaign finance regulations. With their decision in Citizens United, five justices set the stage for a flood of secret special interest money trying to buy elections nationwide.
01/22/2016 12:11 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

Six years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court created a Wild West of campaign finance regulations. With their decision in Citizens United, five justices set the stage for a flood of secret special interest money trying to buy elections nationwide. But with the race for the White House well underway, voters are only now seeing the full consequences of unchecked political spending.

From the Iowa caucuses to local elections in Las Cruces, N.M., Super PACs have taken center stage. They host fundraisers headlined by their candidates and spawn field operations with canvassers on their payroll. Just recently, the Federal Election Commission -- which is supposed to enforce our election laws -- decided in a 4-2 vote that candidates themselves need all but ask a wealthy donor for a blank check to their supportive Super PAC. These shadowy organizations are upending campaigns as we know them -- with near impunity -- and shaping elections as a result.

Citizens United and 2014's McCutcheon decision gutted sensible laws that helped ensure all voters have an equal voice in our democracy. We need to overturn those bad decisions -- and that's why I've led efforts to amend the Constitution and restore Congress' ability to pass commonsense campaign finance laws so lawmakers listen to the voters, not the person with the biggest checkbook.

But we can't forget the bigger picture. The approach we need to take to fix our politics is like a three-legged stool. Amending the Constitution is one leg -- we also need to reform redistricting and restore election law enforcement. Laws and regulations don't matter if no one enforces them.

In creating the FEC, Congress designed an agency that campaign finance experts have called "a watchdog without a bite." Gridlock is so pervasive one of its own commissioners admitted that there's a slim chance they'll be able to do anything at all this year, saying it's "worse than dysfunctional."

It's time to replace the broken FEC with a new agency empowered to keep a close eye on candidates, political parties and Super PACs, and crack down on election law violations. In the coming weeks, I plan to introduce legislation that would eliminate the FEC and start fresh.

I also plan to introduce the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act -- to bring impartiality to the secretive and highly partisan congressional redistricting process.

The president highlighted this issue in his State of the Union address last week, saying: "We've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around."

In most states today, congressional maps are drawn behind closed doors -- by partisan lawmakers set on keeping incumbents in office. Pick almost any district in the country, and you'll see that virtually each one is skewed to favor one party or the other. Voters, not powerful elites, should have their say. What happened to choosing our own representation?

As a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, I'm extremely familiar with the impact this practice has on our democracy.

We can end the gerrymandered status quo by requiring states to replace the current system with independent, citizen-led redistricting commissions. Arizona and California voters implemented similar plans and they're already bringing new faces to Congress.

Campaigns should be about the best ideas, not the biggest checkbooks or rigged districts. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and we need it on both counts. Our democracy is better than this shadowy, anything goes Wild West.

Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is a member of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.