Citizens United

By Doug Samuelson

The football game on TV had gone to commercial break, and the group of friends turned their attention to the refreshments. Then one of them groaned, “Oh, no, not another political ad!” Don, the group’s host, quickly pressed the “Mute” button on the remote. “I’m sick and tired of them too,” he grumbled.

“I’m active in one of the campaigns,” Charlie offered, “And I’m sick of all of it, too!”

Jan, Don’s wife, was returning from a fridge run, beer in hand. “We can thank the Citizens United decision,” she said. “Can you even believe how much money is going into this? What, close to three billion dollars? Remember when Nixon set a record, in 1972, raising and spending 66 million, and everyone thought that was a lot of money?”

“The ads are disgusting, too,” Lonnie chimed in. “You know we black people have the reputation that the way to reach us is through our churches, so lots of politicians try to work with our preachers. This year, some of the preachers have gotten so fed up that they’re pushing away candidates they think have been too negative or deceptive. I keep hoping that idea will catch on more broadly, but ...”

“We Latinos are getting that, too,” Carlos agreed. “The difference is, a lot of the campaigns take for granted that the black vote is 90 percent Democratic, so they don’t target you as much. We look more like swing voters, so we get more of their stuff, especially in states like Florida, Colorado, Ohio – big states that are running close, with a lot of Latino voters. And we’re also feeling targeted by these new voter-ID requirements the Republicans are pushing, which look to us like attempts to suppress the Latino vote. Checking everyone’s IDs carefully sounds harmless enough, but if you forgot your ID, it’s a lot easier to understand what to do if English is your first language, and a lot easier to do it if you came by car. So we’re mad at the Republicans for pushing these new procedures. Then they wonder why they’re not getting more of our vote with their ads.”

“The Democrats turn me off, too,” Anne growled, “even though I’m going to vote for them, mostly. They take us women for granted, for good reason, since we generally vote Democratic more than men. I keep getting these shrill e-mail appeals about how the Republicans would overturn Roe v. Wade if they got in. I have to admit that does concern me, but I also have to say it’s not my big issue. Talk to me about healthcare, education, the economy, transportation – I drive, remember? – and, yes, foreign policy. Some of these politicians and their message-makers seem to think only men understand what national security is about, and you can tell that from their ads and where they place them. Now there’s an effective way to annoy women!”

“Well, again, we can thank the Citizens United decision. They do all these ads because they can afford them,” Jan said, “and they’re still figuring out what works. The negative ads apparently work better, so that’s mostly what we get. Also, you can’t tell, under these new rules, where the money came from, so it’s less risky to attack someone. Who is Citizens United, and what do they stand for? Does anyone even know? Every one of these PACs has some vanilla, all-for-America name, and we don’t know what the real agenda is. ‘Americans for Economic Growth’ could turn out to be some radical anti-labor unions outfit. ‘Americans for Ecology’ could turn out to be backed by the Saudis, trying to undercut our oil and gas production. ‘Americans for Peaceful Relations’ could be China, trying to undercut our national defense. How would we even know? At least when the big-business robber barons tried to buy elections a hundred years ago it wasn’t hard for people to figure out where the money was coming from and what the real goal was.”

“We need a Constitutional amendment to distinguish the rights of fictitious people – corporations – from those of natural persons,” Charlie nodded. “Some of us are already working on how to do that, and we plan to get going on it after the election.”

“It won’t be easy,” Anne pointed out. “My father was a really good lawyer who told me forty years ago how he thought something like this could happen, because of the Fourteenth Amendment’s broad protection of the rights of all persons. It was meant to override the laws of states that didn’t want to recognize racial equality, but that language and the huge body of case law defining corporate rights makes it a real tangle to limit corporate rights without trampling on civil rights. How to balance this might be a nice challenge for you O.R. analysts. Maybe we need to concentrate on the transparency issue – you can spend all you want, but there are really strict requirements about disclosing where the money came from.”

“I can see who would oppose that,” Jan laughed. “The pundits and consultants and TV executives keep telling the candidates how important those ads are, because the more money that goes into them, the more money the pundits and consultants and TV executives make!”

“One thing for sure,” Anne sighed. “Whatever way these elections come out, we’ll have the best government money can buy!”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va., and a senior statistical analyst/subject matter expert for Great-Circle Technologies, in Chantilly, Va., supporting various national security applications.