fb tracking

Ten Years Later: What Citizens United Has Wrought

Nine Ways the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling Has Eroded Democracy, and Its One Positive Outcome

Before 2010, rules for making political contributions or other expenditures to influence U.S. elections were pretty clear. Donors to campaigns had to be human beings, contributions were disclosed, and corporations and unions were prohibited from spending money from their treasuries for overt activities to influence elections.

That changed on Jan. 21, 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, finding it unconstitutional to prohibit corporations and unions from engaging directly in elections or to limit the size of their electioneering expenditures.

Ten years later, the campaign finance landscape has been upended. The amount of corporate money flowing into elections is unprecedented. A handful of billionaires exert enormous influence over elections. The political ads they fund, which often are sponsored by entities the public does not know, are even more disproportionately negative and dishonest than before the decision. Elected officials have grown ever more responsive to the desires of corporations and the wealthy rather than to their constituents.

Here are nine ways Citizens United has eroded democracy. This is a summary of a more extensive memo Public Citizen issued today:

1. Citizens United unleashed torrents of outside spending by unregulated groups.

In the first congressional elections after the decision was issued, spending by outside entities was more than four times greater than in the previous congressional cycle ($309.8 million versus $69.6 million). Outside spending in the first presidential election after Citizens United was more than three times greater than in the previous presidential cycle ($1.03 billion versus $338.4 million). It has risen ever since.

2. Citizens United led to a massive increase in anonymous political spending. In his Citizens United decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy assumed that voters could assess the credibility of corporate financiers of political ads. In fact, Citizens United led to soaring spending by entities that do not disclose their donors and that often have no more paper trail than a P.O. box.

3. Reality has disproved Citizens United’s assumption that the spending of outside entities would be independent of regulated candidates and parties.

By the 2012 election cycle, outside entities that invested all their electioneering effort to assist just a single candidate accounted for nearly 50% of all the unregulated outside entities seeking to influence elections. This evidence and abundant other data demonstrate beyond doubt that many unregulated outside entities are essentially arms of regulated candidates and parties.

4. Citizens United empowered a very small number of superrich donors, and, more generally, white donors.

Just 25 ultrawealthy donors have made up nearly half (47%) of all individual contributions to super PACs since 2010, giving $1.4 billion of $2.96 billion in individual super PAC contributions, new Public Citizen research finds. And the vast majority of funding for super PACs comes from majority-white zip codes. Super PAC contributions from the top donating majority-white zip codes outpace those from the top donating majority-minority zip codes by more than 10-1.

5. Citizens United facilitated more than half a billion dollars in corporate contributions to influence elections.

Since Citizens United, corporations at minimum have spent more than half a billion dollars to influence elections, a new Public Citizen analysis finds.

6. Citizens United provided a pathway for foreign entities to influence U.S. elections.

The current system leaves plenty of opportunities for outside entities to keep those details hidden, and thus, we do not know the extent of foreign contributions flowing into outside electioneering groups.

7. Citizens United encouraged more and more negative advertising.

Studies have repeatedly found that outside entities are more likely to run deceptive attack ads because they do not fear reprisal from voters.

8. Citizens United left local entities, even those as small as school systems, powerless against an avalanche of outside money.

The rules left behind by Citizens United prohibit state and local officials from placing limitations on spending to influence elections, as well. This dynamic is potentially even more destabilizing than for federal elections because the amounts that ordinarily are spent in local elections are often much smaller.

9. Citizens United led to further erosions of campaign finance laws.

For example, the court relied in part of Citizens United to justify its 2013 decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which struck down limits on the aggregate amount of money that individuals could contribute to federal candidates and political parties.


Citizens United gave rise to a growing pro-democracy movement.

Profound public disgust with Citizens United has fueled an ever-growing democracy movement. Thanks to that movement, 20 states and more than 800 localities have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. Millions have signed petitions calling for an amendment. In 2014, the U.S. Senate voted 54-45 in favor of a constitutional amendment. More than 200 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have co-sponsored a constitutional amendment in the current Congress.

Citizens have focused as well on confronting dark money and forcing disclosure of secret campaign spending. More than 1 million people have submitted comments to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in support of a petition calling for a rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending.

The movement has also scored some legislative successes. In March 2019, the House passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, the most sweeping pro-democracy legislation in the past 50 years. Among other measures, in the campaign finance space, it would provide for small-donor and public financing of elections, tighten rules on super PACs, end dark money spending and much more.