Former Texas Senator Wendy Davis gave a speech a few weeks ago at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work in which she focused on feminism and civic duty. Following her speech, a 13-year-old girl bravely walked up to the microphone and asked how she could run for office one day. The hall erupted into applause while Ms. Davis beamed.
Yes, members of the audience were overjoyed at the boldness of this girl and optimistic for the future of our state and our country. But no amount of optimism will erase the reality that has made it harder for this girl , other women and people of color to be elected to office and to effect democracy. This is due in part to the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, known as Citizens United. Austinites and Texas can make a difference by supporting Texas House Concurrent Resolution 34, a resolution that calls for a constitutional amendment to reverse this damaging Supreme Court decision.
Citizens United gave first amendment protections to corporations and businesses, classifying political donations as free speech. The Supreme Court decision reversed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 and made it legal for corporations to donate to political campaigns and candidates through political action committees (PACs). This opened the door for the Speechnow.org v. Federal Election Commission case, resulting in the creation of Super PACs, which remove any legal limits on donation size.
What does that mean for Texans? For those of us who aren’t millionaires or billionaires, we have less say in what happens in our legislature and in Washington because big money equals access, influence and voice. And that’s wrong.
During the 2016 Texas election cycle, $68.4 million in contributions came from just 20 corporations and businesses. During the last presidential election, over $30 million was contributed from five individual Texas families.
This donation power concentrates influence in the hands of a wealthy few, creating a disproportionately wealthy, white, older, and male donor class. The costs of entering into elections as a political candidate are high, as candidates who aren’t wealthy and don’t appeal to wealthy donors are filtered out of the running. The high barriers to run for office block many talented people from the margins, mostly made up of young people, women, and people of color.
This unchecked donation process keeps a system in motion that prioritizes the economic policies and needs of a few, ultimately affecting low-income groups and discouraging economic mobility.
We thus widen the economic gulf of our nation — a nation that prides itself on the strength of its middle class, representative democracy and political equality. Continuing down this path will further concentrate that wealth at the top and rob the rest of the country of its power.
A healthy nation values all citizens, their votes and their ability to participate in civic life. If the Texas Legislature passes H.C.R. 34, Texas will join 18 other states and 725 cities in the United States in calling for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. We must support this bill and push toward a healthier, more representative nation.
Webster is graduate student in the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. She works for Free Speech For People, a nonprofit dedicated to renewing democracy for the people, not corporate interest.