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Citizens United protest

Attendees hold signs as they listen to speakers during a rally calling for an end to corporate money in politics and to mark the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, at Lafayette Square near the White House, January 21, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Study Confirms How Citizens United Made 'Mockery' of Campaign Finance Rules

"We need to pass the Freedom to Vote Act to stop consultants from acting as coordinators between candidates and super PACs."

Brett Wilkins

As a report published Wednesday revealed that political consulting firms raked in $1.4 billion while simultaneously working for campaign committees and purportedly independent groups during the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, progressives renewed calls for Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act to protect and strengthen democracy.

"The findings in this study add to the overwhelming evidence that campaign committees and outside groups frequently are not truly independent of one another."

The report—entitled Dual Agents—was published by Public Citizen and further discredits Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the highly controversial 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which affirmed that corporations are legal persons and that they, labor unions, and other outside groups could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the outcome of American elections—as long as they don't coordinate with candidates or campaigns. 

"Political consulting firms are perfectly positioned to harmonize the message and strategies of campaigns and super PACs," said study author Taylor Lincoln, referring to the ostensibly independent political action committees that are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money, then spend it on advocating for or against candidates.

Lincoln added, "The findings in this study add to the overwhelming evidence that campaign committees and outside groups frequently are not truly independent of one another."

Among the report's key findings:

  • Political consulting firms that worked for a candidate or political party and also for an unregulated super PAC or other purportedly independent entity in the same elections received $1.4 billion for work in those contests during the past two election cycles;
  • Payments to these common vendors totaled $771.4 million from candidate and party committees, which are subject to campaign contribution limits, and $628.2 million from super PACs and other outside entities, which are not;
  • Ten consulting firms received nearly $1.3 billion of the $1.4 billion paid to these common vendors;
  • A single firm, which operates under three different names, received more than $930 million, accounting for more than 66% of the total combined money paid to the common vendors;
  • There were 210 cases of a consulting firm receiving payments from both a regulated and unregulated political entity for work on the same contest; and
  • In the 2020 presidential contest alone, 26 consulting firms were paid by both regulated and unregulated entities, receiving $526.7 million for their work on the presidential election.

"The activities of these common vendors underscore what a mockery Citizens United has made of our campaign finance system," Public Citizen executive vice president Lisa Gilbert said in a statement. "We need to pass the Freedom to Vote Act to stop consultants from acting as coordinators between candidates and super PACs."

The report's revelations come amid reporting that Senate Democrats will wait to vote on the Build Back Better and instead focus on voting rights legislation. They also come as a a group of more than 20 college students from Arizona are in their second week of a hunger strike outside the White House in support of the Freedom to Vote Act. 

Leo Cevallos, a senior at Arizona State University and one of the strikers, told HuffPost that the proposed legislation "is about getting dark money out of politics and protecting our freedom to vote."

"Without it, our democracy will crumble—and our futures hang in the balance," he added.

If approved, the Freedom to Vote Act would boost ballot access by expanding automatic and same-day voting registration, early voting, and mail-in voting. It would also ban partisan gerrymandering, make Election Day a national holiday, and protect elections from foreign interference, dark money, and partisan special interests while promoting transparency in political advertising.

The measure, and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, are touted by progressives as a bulwark against Republican attacks on democracy. Although the proposed legislation has the support of all 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, Republicans have so far blocked it, as they did to the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act last month after House lawmakers passed the measure in August.

"We cannot overstate how urgent it is for the Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act," the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington tweeted earlier this week. "We need it to protect access to voting and to reduce the influence of money in politics."

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