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Citizens United v. FEC: A Huge Step Back in Campaign Finance

I didn’t know much about the issue of campaign finance until I listened to NPR’s Embedded podcast’s series of episodes on Senator Mitch McConnell (it’s a great series and a great podcast, by the way). I won’t spoil it much because Embedded tells the story really well, but the series delves into the feud between John McCain and Mitch McConnell, the McCain-Feingold Act, and the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC court decision—all of which were about campaign finance laws. Reading about campaign finance in a textbook reading for my politics class has refreshed and expanded my learning from the podcast series.

Here’s the gist of how campaign finance laws work: the Federal Election Commissions imposes certain limits on the amount of money an individual, interest group, Political Action Committee (PAC), et cetera can give to a candidate or party (Kollman 512). This money is called hard money because it is donated directly to a candidate or party, while soft money is donated to groups such as “super PACs” who spend it to support a candidate, party, or ideological stance without directly giving it to a candidate (Kollman 513). While people can get around many of the legal regulations on individual donations to candidates through PACs and less formal “bundlers,” Citizens United changed the game by allowing anyone, including corporations and unions, to give an unlimited amount of money to super PACs (Kollman 512–513). I remember from Embedded that this decision also allowed big donors to make their donations anonymously.

My textbook says we don’t really know how Citizens United will affect election outcomes yet, I don’t think it’s great news for voters (Kollman 514). Some people, like Mitch McConnell, argue that political donations should be a protected form of speech, but that doesn’t sit right with me. Anyone can speak their opinion on something in words, but if money = speech, then some people get a lot more speech than others.

Seriously, check out that podcast series from Embedded about Mitch McConnell to not only learn about the history of campaign finance laws, but also about the effects that companies can have on politics.

Textbook Resource

Kollman, Ken. The American Political System. 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017.



Christian, writer, Eagle Scout, and Drake University Class of '24.

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Andrew Kennard

Christian, writer, Eagle Scout, and Drake University Class of '24.