Citizens United

Citizens United

Anthony Gonzalez, Fall 2022

The term “Dark Money” in politics is one that has been talked about and debated for decades, and while some are in favor of it, others are obviously opposed to the idea. On one side, the side that is in favor is mainly made up of the rich, as well as big corporations with political interests so that they can use their money to buy the votes of the people, and in some cases even candidates. Corporations believe that political spending is essentially harmless and they will go to far lengths (spending wise) while participating in it in order to get what they want as a result. On the other side of things, those who are opposed to this idea tend to be the people along with the few good politicians that are left in this country. Opponents believe that political spending is unethical and inappropriate. They do not believe that it is for the people but instead strictly for selfish reasons. Although each side has their argument and both think of themselves to be correct, what does this “Dark Money” term mean and what is the history behind it?

The official definition for this “Dark Money” term is  “contributions to political groups that are received from donors whose identities are not disclosed and that are used to influence elections.” [1] The key word here and the word to focus on is “Influence”. I say this because in this case it is practically another word for “buy”. Corporations use their money to go along with their political agenda, meaning that when elections come around, they “sponsor” a particular candidate who shares and/or is closest to sharing the same views on certain subjects and they use them to try and bring their political stances to life, no matter how much money it takes. In other words, Dark Money means Companies who stay unnamed spend millions of dollars in order to buy votes/influence in favor of the candidate that they are supporting. This is something that has been happening for as long as some can remember, and while it was brought to a stop for almost a century, it was brought to the Supreme Court and eventually deemed legal once again due to “Citizens United”.

Citizens United was a nonprofit (conservative) group who challenged the restrictions that were placed on election spending dating back nearly 100 years, as they claimed that it violated constitutional rights such as free speech also known as our first amendment. The justices thought that because the corporation spending was independent, that it could not be corrupt since they knew where the money was coming from. This assumption by the justices further led them to their decision to ease up on the restrictions placed on political spending, as well as turning their back on what they used to believe, which was that the government “had a role in preventing corruption”. [2] The decision to overturn the restrictive law was made on January 21st, 2010 with 5-4 splits from the supreme court. With that said, in order to fully understand how and why the Citizens United case even came to be, let’s cover some background information about what led up to these circumstances. The law that led up to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling was called the “Corrupt Practices Act of 1912” which came to be in Montana after a long history of corruption in their state’s politics.

According to former Montana Senate President Jim Peterson, “You use dark money and this curtain of secrecy to basically buy a legislature, or buy a state, or eventually ultimately control public policy” [3] and this is what was happening in Montana during the early 1900s, particularly in Butte, Montana. Due to the state being dominated by corporate interests at every level, companies took advantage of their opportunity. For example, mining was “the first industry really to come into this state” and as a result the “Copper Kings,” as they called them, made a lot of money from it and “bought elected officials”. More specifically, the Anaconda Company were said to be the biggest employers in the state in that time period and through the process of using their money to buy political influence, judges as well as newspapers, they carried out and executed a perfect plan to buy the Montana legislature. It was at this junction that the people of Montana decided to come together and collectively decide that this would not happen again on their watch and together came up with the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 that ultimately said that corporations are no longer allowed to participate and/or make contributions in state elections; and as it turns out, Montana has actually been the leader in campaign finance since this act was passed.

At the time that it was overturned in 2012, several justices on the Supreme Court noted that the decision was made because they thought that a company’s individual spending did not present a big enough threat of corruption, meaning that as long as corporations were not blatantly and obviously involved in a candidate’s campaign, there was no problem.

Since the act was overturned, there have been massive changes in our elections as we know it, including a massive increase in political spending in elections since then. Just in 2012 alone, the same year that the law was overturned, “Dark Money expenditures increased from less than 5 million in 2006, to more than $300 million in the 2012 election cycle”. That is  an almost 300 million (if not more) dollar difference itself, as well as “more than $174 million in the 2014 midterms”. The pattern is there, and it could be more in any given election due to the fact that there is no limit set on exactly how much these corporations can spend in the election as long as they are not “formally coordinating” with the candidate.

This is where Political Action Committees, or PAC for short, come into the equation. PACs are ultimately responsible for raising money for a candidate’s campaign and as a result use that money in order to promote them or even slander an opposing candidate/candidates. There are two types of Political Action Committees. First, there is a traditional PAC that has limits on how much money they are allowed to both contribute and collect, and a traditional PAC is only allowed to contribute up to $5,000 per candidate/per election. Second, the other type of PAC is called a Super PAC. Similar to a traditional PAC, a Super PAC is raising money and as a result spending that money in order to promote and/or slander other opposing candidates, but what makes these two different is that a Super PAC is not directly associated with the candidate themselves, so they are not giving the candidate anything directly.

Super PACs are incredibly more dangerous than traditional PACs to people who are against the idea of Dark Money due to the fact that they are not limited to how much money they can collect or spend to advertise/slander a campaign, since they are not directly associated (or not supposed to be) with the candidate. For example, studies conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice show that from 2010-2018 “Super PACs spent approximately 2.9 Billion on federal elections.”, and even though they are not supposed to be directly associated with a candidate, one has to think there are ways around that, especially considering the amount of money that is being brought in and spent on their behalf. There is absolutely no way that there is no association whatsoever between candidates and their Super PACs who contribute mind boggling amounts of money to support their run and/or sway other voters away from their competitors.

This leaves us as a country with an extremely controversial question, that question being was this worth it, i.e. was this the right decision? Most don’t seem to think so. According to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when asked in an interview about the “worst ruling” that the current court has produced she answers “If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be. So that’s number one on my list.” [4]

As to what is being done now about this issue, President Biden  proposed a bill in a press conference on September 21, 2022 that would again require Super PACs in specific to disclose any donors that contribute more than $10,000 to a campaign. This bill is called the “Disclose Act” [5]. Biden urged the senate to support the bill, pointing out that there is so much money that “moves in the shadows” that nobody knows where it comes from that ends up having a significant impact on our elections, sometimes even including foreign money as well. According to Biden, the use of foreign money in our elections would also be addressed in the “Disclose Act ”, as it would no longer allow corporations with “significant foreign control” from contributing money in our elections. Whether this act will be passed or not is something that the world will have to wait to find out as it is still tied at 49 apiece in November of 2022 by Congress [6], but who it would affect the most also remains a mystery.

In the end, Dark Money remains one of the most controversial subjects that we have not only in politics but in our country as well as it affects everyone whether we notice it or not. No matter how one feels about this topic, whether in agreement or against it, there is no denying that the Citizens United ruling in the Supreme Court is a crucial point in our history that has changed our politics in a significant way, whether it is a good or bad way remains dependent on personal opinion. Nonetheless, the overruling of the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 unleashed a jaw-dropping amount of money that has been spent in our elections since the decision was made, and I think the most important question that it brings now is how will it continue to shape our country moving forward?



[1] Investopedia. “Dark Money.” Accessed November 16, 2022.

[2] 179. “Citizens United Explained | Brennan Center for Justice.” Accessed November 5, 2022.

[3] Dark Money. Films On Demand. 2018. Accessed November 5, 2022.

[4] Rosen, Jeffrey. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is an American Hero.” The New Republic, September 28, 2014.

[5] Biden Pushes Bill Targeting Dark Money in Politics. Accessed November 5, 2022.

[6] Text – S.4822 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): DISCLOSE Act of 2022 | | Library of Congress

Further Reading

Citizens United Five Years Later | Brennan Center for Justice.” Accessed November 5, 2022.

Cohen, Rachel M. “The Democratic Dilemma on Dark Money.” The American Prospect, December 2, 2021.

DeSilver, Drew. “Spending by Nonparty Groups Sharply Higher so Far This Election Cycle.Pew Research Center (blog). Accessed November 5, 2022.

Inside the Ever-Growing Power of Dark Money in U.S. Politics,” March 4, 2022.

Worcester State University Fall 2022