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Democracy Is For Sale

July 14, 2022

It’s 2022, an election year, so you know what that means: countless campaign flyers in your mailbox, one political commercial after another on TV, and targeted online advertisements that make you feel like someone’s been listening to your conversations. I’m sure you’ve wondered who is behind all of this. . . .

If you think candidates and their campaign staff are the ones who create the barrage of advertisements that come your way during election times, you wouldn’t be wrong. But there are also external groups that are not officially associated with politicians that fund ads for specific candidates and policies. This occurs throughout the United States due to the amount of campaign donations that come in from corporations and wealthy individuals. 

The Supreme Court issued the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) verdict in 2010, which ruled that “corporations are people” and therefore can partake in our elections through rights established by the First Amendment, including monetary donations and the ability to set up independent expenditures.(1) The ruling fundamentally altered the way elections are carried out in the United States. 

In California, the ruling affects every part of our elections—from candidates who get nominated to expensive recalls and propositions added to the ballot. In 2020, more than $104 million was spent on state Assembly elections and $61 million on state Senate elections.(2) This is an incredible amount of money that could alleviate so many issues that working families are experiencing throughout the state, but instead the vast sums of money are used to advertise to voters in order to persuade them to support candidates who align with corporations and with wealthy individuals’ wants and needs.  

In the past two years alone, we have seen money wielded in such a way that it undermines the will of California voters by misleading them and getting expensive statewide and regional recalls to qualify—and in some cases succeed, due to extremely low voter turnout that isn’t representative of the population. 

The recall election of Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021, which emerged from well-funded lies hitting the airwaves, cost Californians $200 million.(3) And recently, those who led the recall against Chesa Boudin spent $7 million to spread a false narrative that the district attorney was responsible for all the city’s problems, which were decades in the making.(4) More money was spent in the DA recall than what was received by every San Francisco mayoral candidate in 2018 combined. 

Additionally, the process for getting a proposition on the ballot in California is easy—if you have the money to do it. According to the attorney general’s website, “The ballot initiative process gives California citizens a way to propose laws and constitutional amendments without the support of the Governor or the Legislature.”(5) These proposed laws then need to receive enough signatures to get on the ballot. And, you guessed it: corporations and wealthy people pour millions and millions of dollars into this effort to get the proposed laws to qualify and pass. For example, in 2020, Uber and Lyft spent more than $220 million to get voters to support Proposition 22, which labor advocates and many gig workers severely opposed. (5

In total, $785 million was spent on ballot propositions in 2020, which was a recordand California is on track to beat that record this year. Politico has reported that groups have raised well over $300 million already in preparation for the proposition fights ahead this year.(6

As you head to the polls this November, be sure you’re aware of who is sending election-related material your way by reading the fine print, which tells you who paid for the materials. Democracy shouldn’t be for sale, but the system we are living under today paints a different picture. We must get to a place where elected leaders utilize their campaigns to talk to working people, not just court the wealthy. The first step to get there is not letting the barrage of campaign material blindly influence you. Instead, do your own research and become a member of political groups you trust so that you have the information you need to vote your values.