California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) hosted a panel Thursday evening to discuss the consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission in 2010.
In the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, the Court ruled that political spending is protected under the First Amendment and corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on politics, as long as it is done independently of a party or candidate. The panel discussed the consequences and possible future solutions of the money given to these Political Action Committees (PACs) that are allegedly independent from the candidates they support.
City council member Gregg Hart said people cannot expect elected officials at every level of government to be looking out for citizens’ best interests, and said citizens should be as knowledgeable as possible about information on social media and television.
“Education and engagement of citizens at a much more fundamental level about government is really the answer,” Hart said. “It is impossible today to be a passive citizen to have an effect.”
Hart said oftentimes factions arise that campaign only to their voters, resulting in many opinions getting lost through censorship.
“As we are overloaded with information, we are censoring ourselves; we are selecting the information we are trying to sort through and to find value in,” Hart said. “In doing that, we are not hearing other people’s perspectives.”
According to Hart, the amount of money given to political campaigns should not be a deciding factor for voters who have taken the time to learn about the issues and candidates.
“An uninformed voter [shouldn’t be] persuaded by a goofy television ad that was funded by a corporation,” Hart said.
Jared Daniels, fourth-year political science and history double major and Associated Students external vice president of statewide affairs voter registration director, said the problem is not only within the Executive and Legislative branches, but is in the Judicial branch as well.
“Citizens United has created an entire generation of Justices which highly benefit from Citizens United, and that all carry on with them throughout their Judicial career,” Daniels said. “So to me, the influence of money and what should be the most nonpartisan, un-ideological branch of government is also subject to the exorbitant amount of funds that are in politics today.”
Political science professor Eric Smith said the main issue in campaigns is inequality between economic statuses.
“There has been a huge transfer, bigger than any in this nation’s history, of money from working class, middle class people, to the corporations and the extremely rich are soaking up huge amounts of it and it comes out in public policy,” Smith said. “The cost of going to school or the cost of health insurance that we pay, a whole bunch of policies turn on inequality, and we are all suffering.”
Smith said one solution could be to give the power to regulate campaign finances back to Congress and state legislatures.
“If you want to do something about inequality, this would be a huge first step,” Smith said.
Hart said there is a distorted democracy and figuring out ways to work around the existing system of campaigns is unimaginably hard.
“Changing Citizens United is only a step in that process … there are many other loopholes,” Hart said. “There is so much money at stake in this sort of equation.”
Hart said the influence of money between Democratic and Republican funded campaigns is “dramatically different.”
“The judges of the Supreme Court who passed Citizens United [and] who are constantly ruling in ways that protect corporate influence and disadvantage regular people are the Republicans,” Hart said.
Daniels said where the funding is coming from plays a large part in where it is delegated.
“We have to look that this also includes union money,” Daniels said. “Union money is a factor [which] would by and large benefit the Democratic Party. So of course there is always going to be that question: ‘Does money really affect the voting behavior of elected representatives?’”
Ezinne Meremikwu, Against Citizens United campaign coordinator at CALPIRG, said CALPRIG is gathering local support to end the corporate funding of elections.
“We are actually working with the Santa Barbara City Council to basically get Santa Barbara to put themselves on record on being against Citizens United,” Meremikwu said.