People For the American Way

Corporations Sitting the Election Out? Hardly.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing this morning on the tremendous impact the Supreme Court will have on whether the American people will be allowed to retain control of our own democracy. Testimony focused on the Court’s decision in Citizens United and the role the Court will play in upcoming cases in preserving individual citizens’ voting rights.

Professor Anthony Johnstone of the University of Montana School of Law testified about Montana’s experience with out-of-state corporations corrupting that state’s elections. He also contrasted the Court’s deep skepticism of the legislature in Citizens United to its deference in Crawford, the case that upheld a strict voter-ID law that strips Americans of their right to vote. Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, testified on the nationwide assault on voters that threatens to silence targeted communities through strict voter-ID laws, inaccurate voter purges, restrictions or elimination of early voting, proof-of-citizenship requirements, and outrageous barriers to voter registration drives. As she noted, fair and just courts are the key to protecting the right to vote that our democracy is based on.

The third witness, invited by committee Republicans, was litigator Michael Carvin. Carvin defended Citizens United and harshly criticized that part of the Voting Rights Act that requires federal approval of voting law changes in areas with a history of racial discrimination. Personally, my favorite part of the hearing was when he essentially said that corporations were sitting this election out:

Notwithstanding recent uniformed and irresponsible speculation, corporate expenditures and speech in the wake of Citizens United have not overtaken the political marketplace or drowned out speech by individuals acting alone. To the contrary, recent election cycles have seen an explosion of political participation and contributions by individual voters, and no cognizable uptick in corporate political activity.

I am not aware of any major, for-profit corporation running a single political advertisement in its own name. And the data from the 2012 Republican Presidential primary elections completely refutes the overheated rhetoric that corporations are taking over the political world. Each of the eight leading Republican Presidential candidates was supported by an independent expenditure-only committee—the so-called Super PACs. Notwithstanding the fears of some that wealthy for-profit corporations would dominate politics, we now know from the disclosures filed with the FEC that not a single one of the Fortune 100 companies contributed a single cent to any of these eight Super PACs.

Left unsaid is that corporations are spending their money in secret to make sure voters don’t know what they’re up to. For instance, an informative article in The Nation last week pointed out the enormous amounts being spent to affect our elections by 501(c)(6) trade associations and 501(c)(4) issue-advocacy groups. Whether it’s PhRMA, Big Oil, or the Chamber of Commerce, the last thing that corporate interests are doing this year is sitting out the election. In many parts of the country, the airwaves are being blanketed by propaganda that they have paid for.

Whether it’s corporate-bought elections, or corporate-supported elected officials gaming the system to prevent disfavored Americans from voting, our democracy is facing a grave threat.


Anthony Johnstone, campaign finance reform, Citizens United v. FEC, corporate court, corporations, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, disclosure, early voting, Elisabeth MacNamara, League of Women Voters, LWV, Michael Carvin, money in politics, Montana, proof of citizenship, secret money, Senate Judiciary Committee, Supreme Court, voter ID, voter purge, voter suppression, Voting Rights Act, VRA