At this point, reports that a Russian company purchased political ads on Facebook in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election are unsurprising to most Americans. Multiple committees have been investigating the Kremlin’s connection to the Trump campaign for over a year now, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller keeps uncovering more and more damning evidence every day. Whether or not American politicians directly colluded with Russian officials remains to be determined, but our elected officials are nonetheless complicit in the degradation of our electoral process.
Did Foreign Money Affect the 2016 Election?
Foreign entities are technically prohibited from contributing to political campaigns, but enforcing this rule is difficult, and no one seems to know what to do when it happens. Unfortunately, preventing foreign intervention in our democratic processes is proving to be quite difficult because of the laxity of our country’s campaign finance laws.
In recent decades, right wing lobbyists and lawmakers have conspired to dismantle laws intended to limit financial contributions to political campaigns. Consequently, a small group of ultra wealthy individuals now have a disproportionate say in our political process, and some of them may not even be American citizens.
The $100,000 digital ad campaign recently uncovered by the Mueller is likely just a drop in the bucket. Due to legal loopholes and political gridlock at all levels of government, we’ll probably never know just how much foreign money was spent in 2016. We do know, however, that Russian donors weren’t the only foreign actors who tried to influence elections last year.
Thanks to a corporate law loophole, Chinese nationals were able to donate $1.3 million to a Jeb Bush super PAC through a company called American Pacific International Capital. A wealthy Mexican entrepreneur also made super PAC donations through a shell corporation. At the beginning of 2017, the FEC was investigating 15 potential cases of illegal foreign campaign spending. Sadly, tracking that money is difficult since there are so few regulations regarding such contributions.
FEC laws around digital political ads are outdated and leaves our elections vulnerable to manipulation. We’re demanding change.
— End Citizens United (@StopBigMoney) October 30, 2017
A Dangerous Precedent
To be fair, all three branches of government have contributed to the problem. The Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the 2010 case Citizens United v. the U.S. Federal Election Commission set a dangerous precedent by classifying political donations as “speech.” Therefore, the right of corporations, labor unions and advocacy groups to donate unlimited sums to political campaigns is now constitutionally protected.
While the nuances of the law are arguable, everyone knows that money corrupts politics. Billions of dollars get spent during every election cycle on political advertisements and campaign events because donors expect a return on their investments. There’s nothing wrong with organizations that endorse or donate to political candidates who support their interests; however, when there are no limits to such contributions, the organizations with the most money are able to effectively bribe politicians. Although the candidate with the most funding doesn’t always win, it’s now impossible to make it past a primary without substantial financial backing.
Fighting Back Against Corruption
Democrats have proposed a number of measures to reign in out-of-control political spending such as the DISCLOSE Act, the Get Foreign Money Out of U.S. Elections Act and the By the People reform package. Part of their proposals include a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United case.
These politicians have the backing of a political action committee called End Citizens United. In 2015, the founders of End Citizens United started their own fundraising campaign to counter the influence of foreign and corporate money. According to its website, the organization solicits donations to support political candidates who are “campaign-finance reform champions.” During the first quarter of 2017, the group received $4 million, which is especially impressive considering that the average contribution was just $12.
Executive Director Tiffany Muller predicts that the group will take in $35 million total before the 2018 midterm elections, which is $10 million more than they spent during the previous cycle. Muller told USA Today that the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have donated to End Citizens United, “feel like the system is rigged against them,” and that “This is their way of fighting back.”
As of now, the only way to fight back against mega rich donors is to outspend them, which is why we need institutional change. We can’t stop foreign adversaries from trying to influence our elections, but we must do everything we can to prevent them from succeeding.
Our democracy is more fragile today than ever before due to the influence of money in politics. When our own politicians try to rig the system, we shouldn’t be surprised when outsiders follow their example.
About End Citizens United
End Citizens United is a nonprofit organization committed to limiting the influence of money in U.S. elections. Founded in the aftermath of a controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision that permits corporations to make unlimited donations to political candidates, End Citizens United employs grassroots fundraising tactics to support candidates who are dedicated to campaign finance reform. By bringing public attention to dark money and other forms of corruption in our election process, End Citizens United aims to restore the integrity of our democracy.