Citizens United and the 19th Amendment

What campaign finance reformers can learn from America’s suffragettes.

Theo Anderson April 19, 2012

Some suffragettes in action. (Library of Congress)

When the Supreme Court hand­ed down the Cit­i­zens Unit­ed deci­sion in Jan­u­ary 2010, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma described it as dev­as­tat­ing to the pub­lic inter­est” and promised that he would work to repair the dam­age that has been done.” It was sup­posed to be among his top priorities. 

It’s impossible to know how far a movement is from achieving its goal until that goal becomes reality.

If work­ing to reverse Cit­i­zens Unit­ed has been one of Obama’s pri­or­i­ties, though, it’s been a well-kept secret. He rarely men­tions it, and in Feb­ru­ary he reversed him­self and decid­ed accept fund­ing from a Super PAC that’s rais­ing mon­ey for his elec­tion cam­paign. (Cit­i­zens Unit­ed allows Super PACs – or polit­i­cal action com­mit­tees” – to raise unlim­it­ed cash con­tri­bu­tions from indi­vid­u­als, almost always on behalf of a par­tic­u­lar can­di­date or cause.) 

But in truth, the momen­tum for revers­ing Cit­i­zens Unit­ed was nev­er going to come from the White House, much less from Con­gress. Both are too deeply enmeshed in the sys­tem to invest much effort in reform­ing it. The ener­gy to defeat the rul­ing will come, if it comes from any­where, from old-fash­ioned grass­roots activism. And on that front, the out­look is more promis­ing than you might guess. There’s good news and bad news, and some more good news.

The first piece of good news is that Cit­i­zens Unit­ed isn’t a par­ti­san issue: a sub­stan­tial major­i­ty of vot­ers favor impos­ing lim­its on the influ­ence of mon­ey and lob­by­ists in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. In a poll (PDF) released in Jan­u­ary by the firm Green­berg Quin­lan Ros­ner, 55 per­cent of respon­dents said that cor­po­ra­tions should not have the con­sti­tu­tion­al rights accord­ed to indi­vid­u­als. Eighty per­cent favored lim­it­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions and spend­ing, and 89 per­cent of inde­pen­dent vot­ers favored rea­son­able lim­its.” Two-thirds of the lat­ter group said that cam­paign finance reform is a very impor­tant fac­tor in their vote.” The same was true for 69 per­cent of Democ­rats and 56 per­cent of Republicans. 

The bad news is that revers­ing Cit­i­zens Unit­ed is only the first step if we’re seri­ous about address­ing cor­rup­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. To believe that revers­ing the rul­ing a panacea is to believe that our democ­ra­cy was fine and Cit­i­zens Unit­ed broke it. But of course, the democ­ra­cy was already bro­ken,” as Lawrence Lessig, who directs the Edmond J. Safra Cen­ter for Ethics at Har­vard, has observed. In his recent book, One Way For­ward, Lessig argues that the Left and the Right can agree that the influ­ence of mon­ey is a major rea­son for the cor­rup­tion of our pol­i­tics. His man­i­festo calls for them to join forces and replace the cur­rent sys­tem with pub­lic financ­ing and lim­it­ed pri­vate donations. 

The sec­ond piece of good news is that there is a well-marked path toward achiev­ing both the imme­di­ate goal of over­turn­ing Cit­i­zens Unit­ed and the broad­er goal of replac­ing our cur­rent sys­tem of cam­paign finance. It involves build­ing on the accom­plish­ments of cam­paigns at the state and local lev­els dur­ing the last two decades. 

In 1996, Maine passed leg­is­la­tion that pro­vides pub­lic financ­ing to can­di­dates run­ning for all state offices. Ari­zona and Mass­a­chu­setts did the same, both via bal­lot ini­tia­tives, in 1998. (The Ari­zona Cit­i­zens Clean Elec­tions Act was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. The Mass­a­chu­setts law was repealed after the state supreme court declared it uncon­sti­tu­tion­al.) Sev­er­al oth­er states have passed sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion or have ini­ti­at­ed pilot pro­grams that exper­i­ment with some lev­el of pub­lic financ­ing of elec­tions: Con­necti­cut, Hawaii, New Mex­i­co, North Car­oli­na, New Jer­sey, Ver­mont, West Vir­ginia and Wis­con­sin, where pub­lic financ­ing of the state’s Supreme Court elec­tions went into effect just last year. At least two cities – Port­land, Ore­gon, and Albu­querque, New Mex­i­co – have also passed pub­lic-finance legislation. 

And in what may become the most momen­tous devel­op­ment yet for clean elec­tions in the Unit­ed States, a coali­tion in New York launched a cam­paign this week to build sup­port for pub­lic financ­ing of the state’s elec­tions. The coali­tion con­sists of sev­er­al wealthy back­ers, includ­ing one of the founders of Face­book. But unions and MoveOn​.org have also signed on. It’s the kind of ide­o­log­i­cal­ly diverse coali­tion that Lessig envi­sions. The mem­bers hope that New York could become a nation­al mod­el for the effort to free elec­tions from the grip of big mon­ey,” accord­ing to an arti­cle in The New York Times.

The long and wind­ing road to reform – a cen­tu­ry ago and today

Build­ing on state-lev­el activism and incre­men­tal progress – with the ulti­mate aim of pass­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment that address­es both Cit­i­zens Unit­ed and the gen­er­al cor­rup­tion of our pol­i­tics – has an impor­tant prece­dent. It was the strat­e­gy used by the woman suf­frage move­ment a cen­tu­ry ago, at a time when pass­ing an amend­ment that guar­an­teed women the right to vote seemed about as like­ly as purg­ing cor­rup­tion from our pol­i­tics seems today. 

The state of Wash­ing­ton passed woman suf­frage leg­is­la­tion in 1910, and sev­er­al states fol­lowed suit over the next two years – Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia, Kansas and Ore­gon. In the 1912 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, woman suf­frage became a plank in the Pro­gres­sive Par­ty plat­form. But despite this appar­ent momen­tum, there was lit­tle move­ment toward the goal of pass­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment dur­ing the next four years. 

In 1916, Car­rie Chap­man Catt – head of the Nation­al Amer­i­can Woman Suf­frage Asso­ci­a­tion – called on NAWSA’s state chap­ters to engage in a red-hot, nev­er ceas­ing cam­paign” to pres­sure state leg­is­la­tures. That cam­paign – along with the agi­ta­tion of a more mil­i­tant fac­tion of suf­fragettes, who focused pri­mar­i­ly on pass­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment – turned the tide in the last third of the decade. Sev­er­al more states grant­ed at least lim­it­ed suf­frage in 1917 and 1918, and the U.S. Sen­ate passed the woman suf­frage amend­ment in 1919. It was rat­i­fied by three-fourths of the states the fol­low­ing year. 

At least two rel­e­vant morals can be drawn from this his­to­ry. One is that the lead­ers of the polit­i­cal par­ties might be pres­sured into doing the right thing, but they will rarely lead the way. In 1916, a suf­frag­ist described the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty as the chief ene­my in our path,” because par­ty lead­ers had declared for Suf­frage, state by state” but had done lit­tle to actu­al­ly help achieve vic­to­ry. Woodrow Wil­son was the pro­to­typ­i­cal hedg­ing Demo­c­rat who didn’t exact­ly oppose but didn’t exact­ly sup­port reform. He didn’t endorse the con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment guar­an­tee­ing women the right vote until 1918, two years into his sec­ond pres­i­den­tial term – and a year after he had led the Unit­ed States into war on the premise of mak­ing the world safe for democracy.”

The oth­er moral is that it’s impos­si­ble to know how far a move­ment is from achiev­ing its goal until that goal becomes real­i­ty. When a wave of West­ern states began pass­ing woman suf­frage leg­is­la­tion in 1910, it had been four­teen years since the last state, Ida­ho, had done so. When suf­frage became part of the Pro­gres­sive Party’s plat­form in 1912, it must have seemed that vic­to­ry wasn’t far off. Yet it took sev­en more years of strug­gle, includ­ing a peri­od when the momen­tum of 1910 – 1912 seemed to fade, to reach the goal. And no one knew, at any point along the path, when or if the con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment would ever pass. 

So here’s a final piece of good news: gen­uine reform might be clos­er than it seems. Even before Cit­i­zens Unit­ed dra­ma­tized the need for cam­paign finance reform, orga­ni­za­tions like Pub­lic Cam­paign and Pub­lic Cit­i­zen had been work­ing for such reform, and Root­strik­ers and Pro­gres­sives Unit­ed (found­ed by Lessig and for­mer Sen. Russ Fein­gold, respec­tive­ly) have now joined the cause. They offer insti­tu­tion­al chan­nels for activism that strikes direct­ly – as the name of Lessig’s orga­ni­za­tion sug­gests – at the roots of cor­rup­tion in our polit­i­cal system. 

Will that be enough? The one cer­tain thing is that, as Barack Oba­ma used to say, we are the change that we seek. It’s now clear that by we,” he meant you and me. What sound­ed like a promise in 2008 was actu­al­ly a warn­ing: if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. The pres­i­dent, even if he has the incli­na­tion, doesn’t have the pow­er. The Con­gress is so cor­rupt that it can’t even begin to think about how to reform itself. 

Yet, for all that, it’s just pos­si­ble that we’re on the brink of some­thing big. It might be ten years away. It might be a year away. No one knows.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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