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Corporations are Not People: Frequently Asked Questions About Overturning Citizens United

An amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overturn Citizens United offers the chance for long-term solutions to problems inherent in treating corporations like real people. It would give Congress and the states the authority to enact sensible – and overwhelmingly popular – measures to end the domination of our elections by corporations and the super-rich.

Here are few of the reasons why we must pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United: 

  • Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, an unprecedented amount of money has flooded elections. Much of it is so-called “dark money,” which is money funneled through trade associations and other groups that don’t have to disclose the identities of their donors.
  • Voters across party lines overwhelmingly oppose Citizens United and strongly support a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision and curb the influence of money in politics. Notably, voters oppose Citizens United by a nearly 3-1 margin, with Republicans opposing the ruling by 2-1.
  • The top .01 percent of the population was responsible for roughly 40 percent of campaign expenditures in 2012 and outside groups are currently on track to spend nearly 1 billion dollars during the 2014 midterm elections.

Momentum for an amendment is growing. More than 3 million petition signatures have been gathered in support of an amendment, and 16 states and more than 600 municipalities have passed resolutions supporting it. President Barack Obama has also indicated his support.

Background on Citizens United

On January 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruled that the First Amendment gives corporations a right to spend unlimited amounts of money trying to influence elections.

Overnight, bedrock principles like “one person, one vote” and “government of, by and for the people” were undermined. Now, our democracy is at grave risk of becoming nothing more than an auction-one in which the We the People will always be outbid.

Corporations are not people. They do not breathe or eat or sleep. They do not dance or fall in love or raise children. They do not go bowling or fight in wars or get cancer. They do not vote. Yet now they threaten to trample democracy by claiming constitutional protections that were intended only for actual people.

U.S Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), succinctly expressing what millions of Americans-from people in your community to President Barack Obama-are thinking, called Citizens United “one of the worst decisions I have ever seen.”

The ruling must be overturned, and a constitutional amendment is the best way to do that. Below are answers to common questions about Public Citizen’s campaign for an amendment.

What would an amendment say?

We applaud all efforts to overturn Citizens United and curb the unprecedented amounts of corporate money corrupting our electoral process. In September of 2014, a majority of the U.S. Senate debated and voted in favor of S.J. Resolution 19, the “Democracy for All Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution. 

While the amendment did not achieve the 67 votes required to pass the U.S. Senate, 54 votes in favor demonstrate the power and momentum of the democracy movement. Text and cosponsors of proposed amendments in the 116th Congress.

As part of United for the People, our goal is to build a vibrant, long-term grassroots movement to overturn Citizens United. A number of potential approaches have been proposed in Congress, by other organizations and by concerned citizens. We have applauded many of these proposed amendments.

Why are there so many different proposals out there? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone were pressing for the same language?

As we build the movement to remove the “for sale” sign from our democracy, one of the most important things we can do is to educate and mobilize our friends and neighbors – and elected officials – to take a stand. There are a lot of really good ideas about the best way to amend the Constitution, and continued dialogue will help build momentum, but for now, we need to get as many people as possible behind the idea that an amendment really is possible. We can hash out the exact language as we go.

Why can’t Congress address the problem of unlimited corporate spending in elections?

The problem we face now is that the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to extend First Amendment rights to for-profit corporations. Congress cannot overturn a court decision based on the Constitution.

That’s not to say there aren’t things Congress can and should do. Congress should institute public financing for federal elections, which would give candidates some means to respond to unlimited corporate election spending. And Congress should enact protections for shareholders so that corporate funds aren’t lavished on political campaigns without the consent of a corporation’s true owners. But those laws can accomplish only so much. One thing they can’t do is directly limit political expenditures.

Please explain more about the types of reforms Congress can address.

We are pursuing several reforms: public financing of elections; stronger enforcement of campaign finance laws by the Federal Election Commission; greater disclosure of spending in elections; and the Shareholder Protection Act. Employing all of these, along with an amendment, would help rein in the excessive influence that unrestricted, massive corporate expenditures exert on our democracy.

What does it take to get a constitutional amendment passed?

There are a few ways to do it. An amendment must be proposed either by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress or by a constitutional convention convened when the legislatures of 2/3 of the states so request. The amendment has to be ratified either by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states or by conventions in 3/4 of the states, depending on which means of ratification Congress proposes. All of the existing amendments to the Constitution, of which there are now 27, were proposed by Congress, and all but one were ratified by state legislatures. The convention route has never been used for proposing an amendment and was used only once for ratifying an amendment (the 21st, which eliminated Prohibition).

How long does the amendment process take?

It’s hard to say, and the answer has varied for other amendments. It is important to note, however, that the final texts and passage of many amendments were the products of determined citizens’ movements. The 16th Amendment (federal income tax) reversed an 1895 Supreme Court decision that was immediately reviled but took nearly 20 years to undo. The 17th Amendment (direct election of senators), ratified the same year, was also the product of grassroots citizens’ movements and referenda over time. An even longer effort was the tireless campaigning of the suffragettes and other supporters of the 19th Amendment, which formalized the right of women to vote.

While 80% of Americans oppose the outcome of Citizens United, and popular anger at the dominance of our politics by wealthy and corporate interests is high, we expect those forces to fight back fiercely against an amendment as it continues to gain ground. In other words, while this effort has tremendous momentum and passing an amendment is vital to the health of our democracy, we’re also prepared for a long fight if necessary. Regardless of how long it ultimately takes, this is a “movement moment” and reclaiming our democratic destiny is absolutely essential.

What will be the effect of this amendment on the media? Will media corporations keep their First Amendment rights?

The amendment language that we have endorsed would not affect the media. Media corporations would retain their full First Amendment rights when they are engaged in publishing, broadcasting and similar activities. Just like other corporations, however, they would not have the right to sponsor campaign ads or make campaign contributions.

How was Public Citizen involved in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case specifically?

Public Citizen’s Scott Nelson was one of the attorneys representing the key congressional sponsors of the McCain-Feingold law, which was part of what was at stake in the case, and co-authored their amicus brief in the case.

How can I get involved?

Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign works to mobilize all Americans outraged by the Citizens United ruling.

For starters, sign the petition for an amendment. Follow us on Twitter.

Add us on Facebook. Spread the word about the petition and the campaign among your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues.

We coordinate regular organizing calls to facilitate local efforts to build support for an amendment. More than 600 communities have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment, ranging from small towns to New York City and Los Angeles. Help pass a resolution in your community! The more states and municipalities demand an amendment, the more Congress will have no choice but to listen.

If you’re a member of an organization, ask it to commit to working on behalf of a constitutional amendment by engaging in local and state efforts and by signing on to the United for the People’s Statement of Common Purpose.

And make a contribution today so that the campaign has the financial resources to keep building awareness, growing the movement, and fighting for as long as it takes.