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2012 U.S. Elections the First Influenced by “Super PACs”

By Stephen Kaufman | Staff Writer | 01 November 2011
Occupy Knoxville protesters (Brian Stansberry)

Occupy Wall Street and related protests across the United States are questioning the "corporations are people" notion, which provides the legal basis for super PACs.

Washington — Like it or not, Americans who seek election to the U.S. presidency or Congress need money — lots of money — to fund months of campaigning, advertisements and other ways to make themselves and their views more visible to voters, as well as to attack their opponents.

Recent legal rulings have opened new avenues for political spending by corporations, unions and nonprofit organizations, and the 2012 U.S. election cycle is gearing up to be the most expensive yet. Even though many Americans are outraged by the central role money plays in politics, others counter that supporting a candidate or an issue of their choice financially is a form of free speech.

The American electoral system is accustomed to political action committees (PACs), which are private groups that can raise up to $5,000 from individuals to support particular candidates or issues. But the 2012 elections are the first to have so-called “super PACs,” which are allowed to raise an unlimited amount of money from donors who can choose to remain anonymous. Although these organizations are not allowed to donate directly to individual campaigns or coordinate with candidates or political parties, the super PACs can use as much money as they can collect to promote whatever they like and attack their political opponents.

Super PACs are part of the American political landscape because of the Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which affirmed the concept that “corporations are people.” In other words, shareholders and other groups of people enjoy the same rights that they would have if they were acting as individuals. The court also ruled that the government cannot restrict how much such groups can spend to support or criticize political candidates.

In March 2010, a federal appeals court ruled that political action committees can accept unlimited donations so long as they are not coordinating with or being directed by a campaign or political party.

Supporters of President Obama and many Republican presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Herman Cain have all taken advantage of super PACs. The website OpenSecrets.org maintains a current list of all organized super PACs, as well as how much money they have reported to the Federal Election Commission.

Comedian Stephen Colbert has raised awareness among many Americans of the scope and power of super PACs by forming one of his own, and recently defined its message as supporting the “corporations are people” idea with his characteristic sarcasm.

VOTER UNEASE OVER ROLE MONEY PLAYS IN POLITICS

Opposition to the notion that corporations are people and the important role money plays in the American political system have been among the central messages of the Occupy Wall Street protests occurring across the United States.

The 2010 Supreme Court and federal appeals decisions reversed many provisions in campaign finance reform legislation such as the McCain-Feingold Act that were designed to limit campaign spending and add transparency to sources of political funding.

Those decisions and the creation of super PACS helped to bring the debate over campaign financing back to the surface for many Americans. And, thanks to the money available to super PACs, all Americans likely will be encountering more political ads during the 2012 campaign season.

What may be interesting for U.S. election watchers is to see whether the inability of PACs to coordinate with the campaigns themselves could result in inadvertent damage to the campaigns and the causes that the PACs seek to support. Broadcasting or printing messages that are mistimed or run counter to campaign communication strategies could do more harm than good.

But, even if super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with the candidates, the vast amount of money that they can provide will support campaigns with resources that candidates and even political parties might be unable to tap on their own.

Are super PACs an exercise in free speech or undue influence? American voters, directly or indirectly, will decide.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)