The Tragedy of Citizens United

How Dark Money has afflicted U.S Politics



Daniel Marsh, Staff Reporter

The 2020 United States Presidential and Congressional Elections have made history as a high-turnout affair. Former Vice-President and current President-Elect  Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) received a record-smashing 81 million votes, while the incumbent Trump-Pence ticket received just over $74 million. 

With high turnout has come an influx of campaign spending on both sides. The $14-billion price tag of last year’s election was double the amount of spending in 2016. At a moment’s glance, such a staggering number would signal heightened activism and increased participation within our democratic processes. However, a great deal of the money didn’t come from individual donors. 

Political Action Committees (PAC), along with various 501(c) nonprofit groups, can raise exorbitant amounts of “dark” money to supply any given politician’s cause with a steady stream of cash. Dark money is defined as monetary support from undisclosed sourcing. Current law concerning 501(c) nonprofits render their rich donors entitled to anonymity.

Much of this is due to one court ruling. 

On Jan. 21, 2010, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy issued the majority opinion for Citizens United v. FEC in a 5-4 decision, a landmark case spurred by the controversial showing of an documentary critical of Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential campaign. The film, titled “Hillary, the Movie” was commissioned by Citizens United, a Conservative 501(c) nonprofit group. 

According to the Federal Election Commision (FEC), the airing of a political advertisement in proximity of a presidential primary was in violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The BCRA let set several limits on the actions of 501(c) nonprofits in given periods of time leading up to a primary or general election, as well as prohibiting a majority of their expenditure from being spent on political issues.  

By issuing the ruling in favor of Citizens United, the high court struck down several provisions of the BCRA, eliminating both of those measures in the process. The five-justice majority argued that constraining “dark money” sources such as Citizens United was in violation of the First Amendment, and thus was unconstitutional.

The dissent, written by Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, argued that the ruling gave an unfair advantage, within the political process, to dark money groups seeking to implement their own agenda through mass spending. In addition, Stevens critiqued the majority’s interpretation of the First Amendment. 

But ultimately, by “protecting” the rights of Citizens United, the court paved the way for well-funded nonprofit groups, monetized by corporate lobbyists, to dwarf the voices of ordinary Americans through unprecedented amounts of political advertising.

This consequential ruling has created loopholes for special interest groups. However, it didn’t start here. The BCRA already mandated that all PACs are required to disclose their donors to the public. However, this provision did not apply to 501(c) nonprofit organizations such as Citizens United. 

Under this dubious mandate, Citizens United could raise large sums of money from undisclosed sources, and donate all of it to a PAC. Since PACs are required by law to disclose their donors, they are only required to say that the money came from Citizens United. This legal maneuver eliminates the purpose of the BCRA, and sheds light on how broken our campaign finance laws are. 

Now, take a look at spending during the 2020 cycle. The honesty of such a large sum of money can easily be called into question. Both the Biden and Trump campaigns were supported by several-hundred million dollars of outside spending. This is largely due to years of legal grifting protecting the “First Amendment rights” of corporations and allowing them to bombard the airwaves. 

Is this what the United States is supposed to represent? In what scenario should  dark money interests funded by anonymous sources be allowed to infest Capitol Hill? Congress must act in the name of the people, and firmly regulate companies such as Citizens United. Contrary to any name corporate lobbyists may give themselves, Citizens United does not, in fact, represent ordinary citizens.