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Four years after Citizens United [Commentary]

Tuesday marks the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. FEC ruling, when the court ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.

Our democracy is built on the basic premise that people — regardless of gender, creed, geography, states or religion — are politically equal. One person, one vote.

The decision four years ago opened the floodgates for big money in our elections, enabling a small number of mega-donors to drown out the voices of average Americans. Fortunately, the decision also sparked a movement across the country to reclaim our democracy.

Since January of 2010, 16 states and more than 500 cities and towns across the country have gone on record as being against the Citizens United ruling, calling on Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment to limit big money in elections. For instance, Colorado and Montana passed referenda to this effect by 3 to 1 margins.

Yet as momentum for change has grown, so has big money's role in our elections. In the 2012 election — the most expensive in our history — a huge chunk of the money came from a tiny number of contributors. In fact, the top 32 donors to Super PACs in the 2012 election, giving an average of $9.9 million each, contributed as much as every small donor to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney combined. This means 32 people spent the same amount as 3.7 million Americans. In addition, election spending with undisclosed or partially disclosed sources grew from $94 million in 2008 to $620 million in 2012.

Allowing large political contributions, which only a small fraction of voters can afford to make, unduly influences who can run for office and who wins elections.

As big money gets bigger, we can expect politicians to spend more time courting million-dollar Super PAC contributions than donations from regular Americans — and that means ordinary voters' voices will get drowned out. It's therefore no surprise that recent big money elections have led to one of the least popular Congresses in history.

It's not just that big money determines who wins an election, it also results in most of our elected officials being beholden to big money interests.

Deregulating elections is like handing a megaphone to wealthy special interests, which then drown out the voices of average Americans in the political process. The contributions of millions of ordinary Americans are thus negated.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court seems to be bent on rolling back campaign finance reform. In October of this year they heard another case, McCutcheon v. FEC, and the outcome could allow even more big money into our elections leaving the overall election system in worse state than after Citizens United.

The good news is we don't have to follow the Supreme Court down this road. It's not too late to turn the car around. While there is no instant fix, we can enact reforms right now her in Maryland and in D.C. to strengthen the voice of average Americans to preserve the integrity of our democracy. In so doing, we can also build toward a Constitutional Amendment.

With this in mind, Congress has plans to introduce the Government by the People Act this month, legislation that will create a small donor empowerment program and we urge our members to pass support it. The program would provide a tax credit for small contributions, to encourage more participation and matching funds for candidates who actively seek funds from a broad swath of their constituents.

And here in Maryland, the General Assembly will be considering a resolution to propose a Constitutional amendment to limit big money in elections.

It's time to counteract big money in elections by amplifying the voice of the American public and take us one step closer to ensuring a government of, by and for the people.

Emily Scarr is director of Maryland PIRG. Charlie Cooper is president of Get Money Out – Maryland. Their emails are emily@marylandpirg.org and charlie@getmoneyoutmd.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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