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5 years of Citizens United: The dangerous influence of corporate personhood

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published January 19, 2015

On Jan. 20, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court offered the momentous 5-4 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling declaring that corporations are people. Five years later, 73 percent of Americans are opposed to Citizens United and see the absurdity of considering a corporate entity a person.

While the ruling might seem like a comical joke passed down from the high court to see if we were paying attention, the consequences of Citizens United are not laughing matters. The anniversary of Citizens United coincides with the start of a new Alaska state legislative session, making it an ideal time for elected leaders and citizens alike to recognize the harm of artificial persons influencing our elections and legislative process, and to do something about it.

Anyone with a mailbox can attest to the inundation of political materials during the 2014 campaign season. In fact, a recent analysis by the Brookings Institute found that the 2014 Alaska U.S. Senate race was the most expensive per capita in U.S. history, with $120.59 spent on each eligible Alaskan voter, for a total of over $60 million spent on the Senate race alone. This unprecedented amount of campaign spending was not a result of extra bake sales by the candidates.

This level of campaign spending is in part a result of Citizens United. The ruling effectively eroded campaign finance regulations in that it allows corporations to contribute limitless amounts of money to political campaigns. Since corporations are people, according to Citizens United, they have rights to free speech just as any person does. To limit what corporations can spend would be to limit their free speech. To take this argument to its logical extension, we might ask:

If a corporation is to be considered a person, should it not then have all the same constitutional rights as every citizen?

What if AKPIRG, a private entity which is incorporated in the state of Alaska and over 18 years of age (we're 40, actually), wanted to register to vote? Based on Citizens United, shouldn't AKPIRG be able to register and cast a vote, since corporations are people? We know, that sounds absurd. But it is no more absurd than allowing corporations and other entities to spend millions to influence elections under the guise of personhood.

Five years after the Citizens United ruling, the nation as well as Alaska has experienced exponential increases in campaign spending and corporate influence. The nonstop inundation of political advertising is not only obnoxious, it threatens to erode our participatory democracy as more and more people "tune out" of the political process to escape the constant noise of attack ads. The elections this last November had the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. We must take back our democracy by implementing substantial reforms to this system.

The fundamental basis of our nation's democracy is at risk by giving corporations and other nonliving entities rights of living, breathing citizens. As the Alaska Legislature enters a new session, AKPIRG encourages our state leaders to take bold action against corporations being able to rule our state. It is time to introduce legislation that demonstrates commitment to protecting the vote and voice of each Alaskan citizen -- that is, each human citizen.

Jessie Peterson is the director of AKPIRG, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, citizen-oriented statewide organization that advocates on behalf of the public interest.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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