If states could compete in a World Series of most corporate cash in campaigns, Colorado would be a strong contender for the national title.
A four-person panel went to bat for purging corporate contributions from campaigns at a discussion Wednesday at the University of Denver. The panel, hosted by the Sturm College of Law, drew about 50 law students and members of the legal community.
The discussion focused on corporate money in Colorado’s fall elections and the implications of the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision in January, which gave First Amendment free-speech rights to corporations.
“Colorado is ground zero,” said Marge Baker, panelist and executive vice president for policy and program of People for the American Way Foundation.
Baker was referring to the amount of corporate cash spent on Michael Bennet and Ken Buck in the Colorado Senate race compared to other races around the country. According to a Wesleyan Media Project study, this race was sixth in the country for most money spent on advertising.
Also on the panel were Terrence Carroll, Speaker of the Colorado House, John Bonifaz, director of Free Speech for People and Roxana Orrell, member of the National Lawyers Guild Executive Council and of the Move to Amend steering committee.
In the Citizens United decision, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority struck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act, and overturned precedent, to allow corporations to fund television broadcasting in elections. Corporations can now independently fund political advertisements in support of or against a candidate, though the Supreme Court did uphold that they must disclose the source of the broadcast and provide a disclaimer about their involvement with the candidate.
The Supreme Court majority based its decision on the premise that the free speech right guaranteed by the First Amendment extends to corporations as well as private citizens.
Baker considered this a faulty reading of the Constitution.
“It was a flawed interpretation of the First Amendment by the Supreme Court,” she said.
The decision represented an erosion of First Amendment power and a misuse of its protections, said Bonifaz.
“We’ve enabled it [the First Amendment] to protect corporations,” he said.
A theme that continued throughout most of the panel discussion was the need for a national constitutional amendment to undo the Citizens United decision.
“You need to amend the constitution to undo the harm,” said Baker.
Though an amendment would certainly be challenging, it has been done 27 times before (after the Bill of Rights), and would not be impossible, said Bonifaz.
“We can do it again, and we must do it again,” he said.
Carroll, Speaker of the Colorado House and adjunct professor at the Sturm College of Law, spoke on use of “hard” and “soft” money in Colorado state elections.
Hard contributions are those donated directly from individuals to candidates, of which there is a limit per donor per candidate. Soft contributions are those donated to 527 organizations, tax-exempt groups that do not have reporting requirements like PACs, which support certain candidates.
These 527 groups are used on a regular basis in Colorado, said Carroll. He recognized that these groups sometimes toe the edge between what he considers acceptable and unacceptable in campaign finance ethics.
“What 527s do comes right up to the line,” he said. “In some cases it does cross the line.”
“The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections,” he said in a January speech.
The effect would be a resounding flood of special interests power, drowning out individual voices, he said.
“We don't need to give any more voice to the powerful interests that already drown out the voices of everyday Americans,” said Obama.