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Are we living in a trick or treat democracy?

Co-authored by Democracy is for People Intern Sami G"trick or treat democracy"reen and Senior Organizer Aquene Freechild

As ghosts and goblins emerged this Halloween evening, the halls of Congress seem more spooky than ever. Corporate power has penetrated our political process and threatens our democracy. Politicians have become more responsive to the corporations that write big checks than to the people who elect them.

As children across the nation prepare to get dressed up this Oct. 31 and participate in the age-old tradition, we can’t help but feel that with Super PACs popping up everywhere and growing national frustration with corporations spending unlimited secret amounts in elections, the trick seems to be on us.  But who gets the treat?

Let’s consider…

Many argue the trick is on the American voters who are already being bombarded with anonymous ads opposing or supporting various candidates.  Examples of patently false negative advertising abound, and negative advertising overall has been increasing. Some studies show that negative ads may even lower voter turnout particularly among swing voters.

But the trick is also on elected officialsThe New Yorker’s example of John Snow, a former North Carolina state senator, illustrates both the power of secret unlimited expenditures in elections and the lack of issue significance of the typical attacks. Snow was targeted and lost in part due to outside ads attacking him for being part of a unanimous vote in favor of building an aquarium and for funding for a Shakespeare festival that had been state-supported for 10 years. Nearly a million dollars were spent in this rural district contest, most of it against Snow.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission gave corporations the right to express themselves in elections by spending unlimited funds advocating for or against candidates. Seems like a treat, right?  Yet, for most small businesses, there is little chance they have the funds to participate. Even among large corporations, the court’s ruling may do more long-term harm than good; a recent report released by the Committee on Economic Development (CED) claimed that this kind of corporate campaign spending and secretive giving  is “bad for business’s reputation, bad for innovation, bad for job growth, and bad for our democracy.”  The CED, as well as spokespeople for Pfizer, Merck, Deloitte and American Electric Power, called on businesses to at a minimum disclose their giving, and for elected officials to support public financing for election campaigns and greater transparency measures.

Target already learned the hard way about reputational damage corporate campaign spending can cause, after the disclosure of its $150,000 contribution to Minnesota Forward (a group that helps elect anti-gay rights activists in the state races). Public outcry and a boycott against Target resulted in the CEO making a public apology.

So, who gets the treat? Certainly there are corporations and wealthy individuals who can afford to play the campaign cash game and win, but what about those of us who can’t? In this gamble, almost everyone loses.

Rather than expanding rights for more people, the Citizens United ruling is poisoned candy. The ruling needs to be overturned and soon.

The Democracy Is For People campaign is working with pPeople For the American Way, Move to Amend, Common Cause and Free Speech for People to push for a constitutional amendment  that would restore constitutional rights and fair elections to the people.. Organizing parties featuring a web cast with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont will be held on November 9 in more than 150 locations around the country—find out more www.democracyisforpeople.org.