A Solution for a Hurting Democracy: The Importance of Overturning Citizens United

Abby Dryden ’24

Abby Dryden ’24

The 2020 election cycle broke campaign spending records totaling $14.4 billion.  

This is only one of the effects of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission. Rather than their constituency, campaign funds now greatly influence Congress members’ decisions. Citizens United created a democracy that no longer works for the citizens, but rather for those with the largest pockets. Consequently, for democracy to return to the hands of the people, the Citizens United decision needs to be overturned. 

In the last ten years, the United States has witnessed the most expensive and secretive elections in its history. One could point to the Citizens United decision as having caused this trend. Arguably, the most prominent change under Citizens United is that campaigns are permitted to accept unlimited donations from corporations, non-profits, and labor unions without having to reveal the source of the donations. One fundamental issue with granting corporations the power of unrestricted, private donations is that it opens the door to foreign meddling in American elections. By granting secrecy, the United States unwittingly allows foreign nationals to donate money to groups who have the power to influence campaigns and elections. For example, Lev Parnas was convicted of an illegal campaign finance scheme in which money from a Russian oligarch was funneled into pro-Trump groups. A Russian oligarch had a direct line of influence to United States elections. As a result of Citizens United, there was no transparency in transactions such as these and thus, American citizens were left in the dark. Consequently, foreign actors play an increasingly influential role in elections and thus, have increased control over Congress members’ decisions. Overturning this decision would reinstate limits for campaigning, therefore putting citizens back in control: only American citizen interests should influence how representatives in Congress vote and who is elected.  

The secrecy permitted by Citizen United is seen through campaign advertisements. These advertisements are not endorsed by a candidate, yet are influential. Citizens United does not require donations to be disclosed, therefore, citizens do not know who is on the other end of political messaging. The motivation of these advertisements is not in favor of common interests, instead pushing an agenda that can be unclear and contain exclusive benefits. Secrecy also makes it difficult to deduce motivations and tactics are used to make the advertisements convincing. This makes it difficult to know what a viewer is supporting. Upon gaining influence, industries can use their donations to help dictate what is passed in Congress, giving them the power to force their pet projects onto the floor over other matters. 

Some argue that corporations are made up of people who possess freedom of speech and should have the right to donate to political campaigns. However, there is a vast difference in the amount of power. A corporation with a large amount to donate has much more influence than an individual who does not have these means. Yes, freedom should not be limited in a democratic society. However, freedom would be expanded by giving power back to the people because it would restore balance. An agreement can be reached where corporations still have a voice but not at the expense of everyday citizens. 

This proposal is not a simple task, the Supreme Court tends to vote in line with precedent and the court’s ideology has swung towards favoring this type of ruling. It will be an uphill battle, but there is hope due to this. Small steps can be taken that could lead to overturning Citizens United, starting with states. It is much easier to change laws on a state level, thus, making it the best place for a push for change in campaign finance law. One law that could be implemented on the state level, with the hope of expanding to the federal level, is creating a tax credit for political donations to incentivize small donations. 

Citizens United must be overturned in the United States to ensure the return of free elections. The current system allows for foreign meddling in elections and for the prioritization of legislation that is backed by corporations. Citizens United will continue to influence elections and Congress unless something is done. A reversal of Citizens United could change the lives of everyday Americans, the government could finally work for the people.