4 Ways to Flex Our Electoral Muscles

What we can do right now to strengthen our democracy.
Crowd with American Flag photo by Ted Fu

Photo by Ted Fu.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United revealed just how thoroughly the American people (people, I should clarify, in the traditional sense) have lost control over our own democracy.

But it’s far from the only way that corporations now circumvent true democratic decision-making. There are lots of other problems that need fixing—and that can be fixed now, at the state and local level, without waiting for a constitutional amendment. 

1. Disclosure

Citizens United effectively removed the limits that state and federal laws had placed on how much money corporations and other groups can spend to influence elections—but it didn’t dispute the constitutionality of laws that mandate disclosing how that money is spent. In the six months immediately after Citizens United was handed down, 10 states responded by passing laws requiring more transparency—disclosure of how much money outside groups are spending, what they’re spending it on, and so forth. The California Legislature is currently debating the strongest disclosure law to date: It would require that all political ads show the logos of their three largest funders (not PACs, but the originating corporations) on the ads themselves.

2. Clean Elections

In Maine, only 20 percent of candidates accept private campaign contributions. Instead, qualifying candidates (candidates who receive a certain number of $5 contributions from voters) finance their campaigns through the state’s Clean Elections Fund. The results? Lack of wealth doesn’t keep people from running for office; candidates are insulated from the influence of corporate special interests; they spend more time talking to voters and less time fundraising than in other states. The cost? Less than $2 per taxpayer.

Similar systems are in use in Arizona, Connecticut, and a number of other states. A federal system has been repeatedly introduced in Congress, including a 2007 bill ­co-sponsored by then-­Senator Barack Obama.

3. Citizen Juries

Since the Progressive Era, citizens’ initiatives have been a way for regular people to propose laws, bypassing elected officials by putting proposals directly to the electorate. But first, deep-pocketed corporate entities with a stake in the outcome have their chance to sway voters; ordinary citizens rarely have the money to counter. To make sure voters have access to unbiased information about what they’re voting on, a new Oregon law creates juries of randomly selected citizens whose job is to learn the issues, study the proposed legislation, and separate fact from fiction. Their findings are then mailed to the homes of registered voters.
Citizen juries have also been used, though unofficially, to help voters sift through information in gubernatorial and senate races in Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

4. Recalls

What can citizens do when elected officials stand up for corporations at their expense? In a number of states, they’ve recently turned to recall elections. In the last year, citizens have engineered the recall of Wisconsin officials who passed the anti-union Budget Repair Bill (a recall against Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is pending); a Michigan state representative who supported a similar bill; and the Arizona state senator who sponsored the draconian anti-immigrant bill SB 1070 (which was written with the help of the private prison industry).

Nineteen states currently allow citizen recalls of state officials (Illinois became the latest, in 2010); at least 26 allow recalls of local officials.