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MADISON – Dozens of Wisconsinites voiced their concerns over the growing dominance of big donors and moneyed special interests in our elections at a “public telling” hosted by the Money Out, Voters In Wisconsin coalition at the Capitol on Thursday. Members of the public were joined by Congressman Mark Pocan, State Representatives Lisa Subeck and Chris Taylor, former DNR Deputy Chief Conservation Warden Tom Thoresen and other good government advocates in “testifying” to cut-outs of state leaders who have refused to hear proposals that would reduce the influence of Big Money in politics. Speakers also highlighted meaningful reforms taking hold across the country and called on Wisconsin to follow suit.
The “public telling” marked the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a case that struck down campaign finance regulations and opened federal, state, and local elections to increased political spending and less disclosure. And while Wisconsin’s leaders passed legislation doubling campaign contribution limits and further deregulating dark money spending in Wisconsin elections at the end of 2015, voters and organizers continue to win clean election victories across the country, with significant reforms within reach over the coming year.
“Six years after Citizens United, super PACs, mega-donors, and secret-money groups have turned our elections into a playground for wealthy donors and special interests,” said Peter Skopec, WISPIRG director. “It doesn’t have to be that way. From Maine to Seattle, lawmakers, advocates, and voters are winning reforms that ensure everyday voters are in the driver’s seat of our elections. It’s time for us to change course and make government work for ordinary Wisconsinites again.”
“If we are ever to have real democracy in America, where the people – and not big money – rule, we’ve got to overturn Citizen’s United and proclaim, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech,” added Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
As Big Money’s influence grows, voters chip away at Citizens United
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, politicians from both major parties have increasingly relied on contributions from super PACs and organizations that spend undisclosed money on elections. Changes to Wisconsin’s campaign finance system, signed into law in December despite massive public opposition, will further increase big donor dominance and dark money spending in state races.
So far in the 2016 presidential campaign, spending by outside groups is four times what it was at the same point in 2012. According to reports by the New York Times, half of all early spending in the 2016 race has come from just 158 families and the corporations they control. In Wisconsin, wealthy donors are exerting ever greater influence in the political process as well.
In response to growing big donor and special interest influence, sixteen states and over 600 communities nationwide, including more than 60 in Wisconsin, have called for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. Polls show that a vast majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents support overturning the decision. This year, California and Washington State may put their own referendum on the ballot asking voters whether they support overturning Citizens United. AJR8/SJR12, a proposal by State Representative Subeck (Madison) and State Senator Hansen (Green Bay) to pose the same question to Wisconsin voters, has stalled in the legislature despite statewide support.
“In the six years since the Supreme Court handed down its disastrous decision in Citizens United, 61 Wisconsin communities have gone on record — in each case by landslide margins — in favor of a constitutional amendment to restore democracy to average citizens, not big moneyed interests,” said Richard Russell with United to Amend. “We think the whole state agrees, and we ought to give them the chance to say so in a voice so loud the Legislature can no longer keep ignoring it.”
In November of 2015, Maine and Seattle voters strongly approved clean election ballot measures to help refocus elections on ordinary people over special interests and mega-donors. Areas including D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles are now considering similar legislative and regulatory reforms to empower small donors in elections.
In 2016, President and SEC consider reforms
On Tuesday, January 19, the New York Times reported that President Obama is “seriously considering” an executive order to crack down on secret political spending by federal contractors, after a broad coalition of over 50 organizations delivered one million petitions to the White House. Under current law, companies doing business with the federal government are not required to disclose the details of political contributions to 501(c)(4) groups and other organizations that spend money to influence elections.
Also on Thursday, several U.S. senators hosted a tele-conference calling on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to shed light on secret political spending and help address the growing flood of big money in politics. Despite a rider tucked into the omnibus spending bill at the end of December, the SEC can work on a rule requiring publicly held companies to disclose details of their political spending.
The SEC has received more than 1.2 million public comments in favor of a rule requiring disclosure of political spending, including from leading academics in securities law, investment managers and advisers, and a bipartisan grouping of former SEC Commissioners and Chairs.
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