Update on Mass. Citizens United commission

Progress being made, but more work needed

WE’VE REACHED the 10-year anniversary of the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission US Supreme Court decision. The decision overturned longstanding precedent prohibiting corporate funding of elections and unleashed a torrent of corporate money in our political process. In the 2018 election cycle alone, corporations and other outside groups spent over $1.4 billion in federal elections and many millions more in state and local elections across the country.

Many Americans believe the large sums of corporate money in elections drown out the voices of average citizens and represent a serious threat to our democracy. These concerns led voters in Massachusetts to vote—overwhelmingly—in November 2018 to pass Ballot Question #2 to establish the Citizens Commission Concerning a Constitutional Amendment for Government of the People to do something about it. It was charged with studying the feasibility of advancing a constitutional amendment to regulate money in elections and to declare that individual rights do not extend to artificial entities like corporations.

The non-partisan commission made up of civic-minded volunteers appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Secretary of State Bill Galvin, and Attorney General Maura Healey was created in May 2018. It spent over six months holding a series of meetings across the Commonwealth to study the issue; hear invaluable testimony from experts, advocates, and concerned citizens; and, ultimately, draft an initial report that demonstrated the extent of the problem and called for further inquiry and recommendations about next steps.

The issues with which the commission has grappled are complicated. Answers and a path forward are in sight but require more deliberation to be most effective and to avoid unintended consequences.

The initial report issued by the commission documents how the influence of concentrated money from a relatively small segment of the electorate has eroded the principle of fairness and public confidence in our electoral process. It also engages constitutional limitations on the extension of individual rights to artificial entities as well as practical strategies about pursuing passage of a constitutional amendment, but ultimately concludes it is premature to recommend next steps on these elements and calls for additional inquiry.

So the work of the commission continues, at least for the next six months when it expects to issue a subsequent (and presumably final) report. Two goals remain the same—to develop specific, recommended language for one or more constitutional amendment resolutions that would address the problem of big money in elections and to recommend a strategy for both Massachusetts and the nation to promote and ratify the proposed constitutional amendment.

Until then, legislators on Beacon Hill and on Capitol Hill alike, as well as the commission, need to hear from constituents who are concerned about this issue and who refuse to accept the current reality.

Meet the Author

Costas Panagopoulos

Professor and chair of department of political science/Co-chair, Northeastern University/MA Citizens Commission
Meet the Author

Carmine Gentile

State representative/Member, Sudbury/MA Citizens Commission
Citizens must not be complacent in the face of corruption, and we must continue to work together to fix one of the biggest issues of our time. We must reestablish the trust in our political system that the last decade has undermined, in part due to Citizens United and its aftermath. The citizens of Massachusetts will continue to try to lead the way to do so once and for all.

Costas Panagopoulos is professor and chair in the department of political science at Northeastern University and Co-chair of the MA Citizens Commission. Carmine Gentile is a state representative from Sudbury who also serves on the MA Citizens Commission.