Citizen’s United Violates ‘One Person, One Vote’
Sheldon Adelson, the 78-year-old casino billionaire most recently known for propping up Newt Gingrinch’s flailing campaign, then donating $10 million to support Mitt Romney, told Forbes Magazine in February that he’s “against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections. But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.” Though he states his motivation as a fear of big government and a love of country, his actions violate the basic concept of equality on which our country was built.
I’m no lawyer – I was a soldier, a student, am now a small business owner, and always a citizen – but I understand the principles for which we stand. One of them is put simply: One Person, One Vote.
While working to help the Iraqi military and government conduct a national election in 2010, I witnessed many senior level discussions on the principles of democracy, most of which began with “In the United States, we…”. In a nascent Iraqi democracy, we explained that fairness, equal representation, and transparency was of utmost importance. We emphasized that even a perception of disenfranchisement – revoking the right to vote or rendering a person’s vote less effective – could result in a political and security threat.
In our own political system from which we’ve tried to export the most critical principles, we are witnessing a time of disenfranchisement of voters without the financial means to meaningfully impact an election. In short, Sheldon Adelson’s vote makes mine less effective because he can throw millions of dollars behind his opinion,while I’m left to spend time outside of work hours trying to organize as many voters as possible. With his sizeable resources, he can reach millions of people, a quantity I could never reach while maintaining a full time career. This inequality of influence violates the “One Person, One Vote” principle that maintains representative equality in our democracy.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama proved that grassroots organizing, and the resulting small donations from a large quantity of contributors, is (was?) a viable strategy for winning national office. A grassroots, low-dollar-donations-from-many-donors-model follows the spirit that is the foundation behind limiting campaign contributions. For 2011-2012, the Federal Election Commission sets the limit any individual can donate to a campaign at $2,500, which can be donated during the primary, and then again during the general election.
However, due to Citizens United, wealthy individuals like Adelson – or George Soros, for that matter – can funnel unlimited millions of dollars supporting his candidate of choice through Political Action Committees. As an owner of two successful Las Vegas casinos, The Sands and The Venetian, Adelson feels justified that his management skill makes his vote more valuable than the housekeepers that work in his hotels.
Our founding fathers would’ve strongly disagreed, despite the historical and cultural differences that didn’t yet grant suffrage to all. In a debate that has continued throughout our history, Republican Teddy Roosevelt was right to tell Congress in 1905, “All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders’ money for such purposes.” Decades later, the Warren court reaffirmed our Constitution’s intent of “One Person, One Vote” in a case about the equal size of state legislative districts.
Our founders never intended a regular financial transaction to act as a proxy for voting, and for the resulting management to be able to influence elections in the way that Adelson is doing today.
This debate gained full force in the 1970s, resulting in the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 that created the Federal Election Commission, and was designed to limit the influence of wealthy individuals on elections. A bipartisan amendment that further sought to decrease the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations was passed in 2002 in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold).
Having lived through several of these campaign finance reform efforts, Adelson claims that wealthy individuals shouldn’t be able to influence elections in the way that he’s doing, but that he’ll do it so long as it’s legal. This position is at most ignorant, and at least in violation of the One Person, One Vote principle, a principle Adelson seems happy ignore so long as it suits his purpose.
Adelson’s ability to influence an election violates the spirit and intent of the Constitution he loves, and disenfranchises the votes of others. For someone who is so afraid of government growing too large and further impacting his life, what will Adelson do when his bank account isn’t the biggest on the block and his vote is drowned out by a bigger fish? Will he suddenly become a believer of “One Person, One Vote?”
Dan Futrell is a Truman Security Fellow. A U.S. Army veteran, he is a two-time recipient of the Bronze Star Medal. He currently works as Founder & CEO of Blackwell Timepieces.