Here, in a nutshell, is the problem the U.S. Supreme Court unleashed with its 2010 Citizens United ruling: Wealthy, sometimes secret, forces are attempting to influence who Erie County voters choose to represent them in the 60th State Senate District.
It has nothing to do with what is good for Erie County residents and everything to do with the financial interests of monied donors who are pouring millions of dollars into this race and others around the state and country.
Consider the New York State Senate. Real estate developers, a teachers union, hospitals, landlords and even Airbnb are funneling money into State Senate races in an expensive and, frankly, slimy effort to influence races that could make the difference in which party controls that legislative chamber. They must think voters are too dumb to figure things out for themselves.
It would be comical if it weren’t so horrible: the exaggerated claims, over-the-top accusations, dire forecasts – all in the service of donors who, in many cases, hide behind the cheery names of super PACs like Balance New York, New Yorkers Together and Stronger Neighborhoods.
Look at Stronger Neighborhoods, a piker in this game compared to other super PACs. It has donated a mere $264,000 in State Senate races, but it represents Airbnb, whose sole interest is its own ability to make money in New York.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. Companies should be interested in their bottom lines, but that’s not the only factor here. Voters’ interest is in fair elections that are not muddied by outside groups whose millions of dollars overwhelm citizens’ ability to influence their elected officials. The voters who would be represented by the winners of these elections are shouted down. It’s the only way in which money can be considered speech. That confusion is the root of evil in this matter.
In a 1976 ruling that presaged the Citizens United decision, the court ruled that money is speech. Thus, the Buckley v. Valeo decision offered the protection of the First Amendment to those who would drown political campaigns in special interest money in an effort to influence elections and, with them, public policy.
But money isn’t speech; speech is speech. At best, as we have argued before, money is a megaphone – an amplifier that allows speech to be disseminated and heard over the din. But there is no constitutional right to be heard, only to speak.
Critics of that view insist that only Democrats complain about this ruling, but it’s certainly not so this year. In the presidential campaign, PACs supporting Hillary Clinton have buried those backing Donald Trump.
In Erie County, the Fund for Great Public Schools – affiliated with New York State United Teachers – is supporting Democrat Amber A. Small in her campaign against Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs for the 60th District Senate seat. That PAC has ponied up $2.3 million for State Senate races since Oct. 1.
The question is what to do about the avalanches of money that often come from unidentified sources. Who donates to these PACs? At a minimum there needs to be full disclosure of those giving to these committees, which is not always the case. Transparency has to be the entry price for participation.
Over the longer term, the Supreme Court needs to reconsider both these rulings in light of the obvious way they interfere with local voters’ ability to influence their own candidates and the policies they believe are important. That’s a threat to democracy.
Undoing it begins with acknowledging that while free speech is fundamental to democracy, speech is not the same thing as money.