Two years ago, in the widely publicized case of Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could not be barred from spending money to advocate for the election or defeat of candidates. Coming on the heels of that decision, the court also ruled in SpeechNow.org vs. the Federal Election Commission that limiting the amount individuals or corporations can contribute to political action committees is unconstitutional. Taken in conjunction, the cases gave birth to the relatively new phenomenon of “SuperPACs,” which we are watching unfold during this year’s presidential campaign.
In both cases, the rulings only applied to federal elections — Congress and the presidency. It had still been widely believed that states were free to regulate state and local elections, however they saw fit.
On Monday, the Supreme Court, ruling in the matter of American Tradition Partnership vs. Bullock, reaffirmed the Citizens United ruling and extended it to cover state political races, as well. In other words, the floodgates are open. If you thought political campaigns were all about money before, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Now, it is true that money does not automatically mean victory in political campaigns. If it did, Kentucky would be in the midst of Bruce Lunsford’s second term as governor. But money certainly doesn’t hurt, and it does have an all-time winning record.
Taken together, the three rulings have been either bemoaned as the death of democracy or hailed as a major victory for free-speech rights. We’re not sure how history will ultimately judge this monumental shift in campaign finance, but we do not believe our forefathers sought to minimize corporate influence in politics without cause.
Such questions were at the forefront of Kentuckian’s minds at the turn of the last century, as politicians wrestled with the influence of railroads in politics. Before it was all settled, the state would be brought to the brink of civil war and William Goebel would become the nation’s only governor assassinated while in office. Goebel’s murder would make him a martyr and would lead to a ban on corporations providing “money, privilege, favor or other thing of value to any political or quasi-political organization.”
A monument to Goebel now stands on the grounds of the old State Capitol in Frankfort, not far from the spot where an assassin’s bullet felled him. At its base is inscribed the quote for which he is best remembered: “The question is: Are the corporations the masters or servants of the people?”
Kentuckians, along with all Americans, must now confront that question once again.
— The Floyd County Times