The Citizens United Ruling and the Legalization of Corruption



In 2010, campaign finance law changed forever. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money on campaign advertisements as long as those communications are not formally coordinated with any candidate (Ott). Later, in March of the same year, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia applied the ruling in v. Federal Election Commission and allowed for the creation “super PACs”, or “super political action committees”, which can receive an unlimited amount of money from individuals, corporations, and unions (Harvard). Super PACs can not directly contribute to candidates but they can run advertisements for specific candidates. These rulings opened the floodgates for “dark money” to flow into the pockets of political candidates and created an indefinite extreme imbalance of power in our country.

Personal Interest

Historical Problem

The problem of political corruption in the United States has existed as long as the United States has, since its formation. It is hard to pinpoint the turning points of corruption and the evidence as much of it is done behind closed doors and rarely disclosed to the public. An early example of public recognition was in 1906 in the Saturday Book Review in the New York Times. Edward A. Bradford is reviewing Lincoln Steffen’s collected papers on political corruption on the United States and notes, “The Missouri Legislation was the product of the baking powder ring. . .Wisconsin was owned by the railways”(Bradford). In the early 19th century, the spoils or patronage system was used. The spoils system is when a political party rewards their supporters and friends with government jobs after they win, in exchange for their political support. This transformed into “machine style politics”. “Machine style politics” were used in large cities such as New York and Chicago from the mid-1800s until the 1970s (Brown). Machine politics relied on immigrants and the poor and would give them jobs in exchange for their vote. Politicians would also receive bribes to make sure that important city services were delivered properly. Moving closer to the present day, companies with an interest in the politicians’ vote or opinion can donate directly to their super PAC. The donation is unlimited and can come from an individual from the company or directly from the company itself. This means that companies can completely carry a political campaign just because they have some interest in their election.

Present Day Problem

The magnitude of political corruption has been steadily increasing since 2010. The Citizens United ruling legalized dark money, meaning that politicians can be supported by super-PACs that do not have to report the names of their donors. This creates an obvious mistrust between the average politician and voter, as you could never know who is funneling money to the candidate. Political contributions have increased exponentially over the last few years. Spending by outside groups excluding party committees rose from $205.5 million in 2010 to $1 billion in 2012. That is a 500% increase in two years, right after the Citizens United ruling. Political spending for 2016 was $1.4 billion (all excluding dark money) (OpenSecrets). Many various groups and organizations have come out against the Citizens United ruling and against political corruption. One political action committee, End Citizens United, has been at the forefront of the fight since their formation in 2015. They collected hundreds of thousands of signatures, organized marches, and fundraise money to donate to candidates that support overturning the ruling (End Citizens United). A Bloomberg poll from 2016 found that 78% of Americans said that the Citizens United ruling should be overturned, while just 17% thought it was a good decision (Stohr).


While the road to campaign finance reform is a long one, it is one that exists. There are a few things the average person can do to achieve reform, and there is a deeper institutional change needed for our democracy to function properly. There are a number of things the average person can do to aid in the fight against corruption. First, they should educate themselves on what exactly the ruling is and what it did. Many people know the term “Citizens United” but are unclear on what happened in the case. Next, the most important thing to do is to vote. Vote for candidates that are true to their word and support the overturning of the Citizens United ruling. The most important thing our country needs is the overturn of the Supreme Court Citizens United ruling in 2010. While this seems like an impossible solution, it is one that we have gotten closer and closer to over time. Various organizations have aided in convincing candidates to support the overturning and to educate the public. Super PACs need to be abolished and America as a whole needs to take a hard look at the campaign finance system. Corporations should not be able to donate in any way to candidates, and there should not be large donations allowed as favors or policy input is often included with that donation. Our campaign finance system should be one that allows normal people to give money they have earned to candidates they like, not one that favors the rich and allows them to be powerful and influence politicians.

Works Cited

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