Jan. 21, 2022, marks the 12th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court deciding case Citizens United v. FEC. With a 5-4 majority, the court sided with the conservative policy group, Citizens United, ruling that outside groups and corporations can spend money on elections without limits. Essentially, the court said corporations deserve the right to political speech like you and I, further skewing influence away from everyday people and toward corporations.

Justice Kennedy wrote that prohibiting “independent political spending” violates the First Amendment right to free speech. He argued that “independent political spending” did not pose a threat to corruption if the spender is not formally coordinating with a candidate, something I fundamentally disagree with. I think this unfairly leverages corporations like General Motors and lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association to have more rights and more influence in our elections and beyond. While these organizations and companies can’t directly coordinate with a candidate, it should come as no surprise to hear that the NRA spent nearly $30 million to influence American elections in 2020.

Since the ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, an unprecedented amount of money has flooded American elections. Just think about how much was spent on elections in 2020. For example, during the U.S. Senate race right here in Maine, an eye-popping $207,473,963 was spent between candidate committees, political action committees and outside groups. This was part of a national trend, with historic high spending on electioneering across the country.

Overall, the 2020 election cycle was the most expensive election cycle in American history. Political spending totaled $14.4 billion for the presidential, Senate and Congressional races. This was double the previous record-breaking 2016 election cycle. Of that, $3.3 billion was spent by outside groups across the country. That’s an insane amount of money without complete and transparent disclosures about where the funding comes from. It keeps voters in the dark about whose money is behind a TV ad or a mailer.

Thanks to the ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, principles of our democracy such as “government of, by and for the people” are out the window. A very small group of ultra-wealthy Americans hold more power than ever before, as rates of income inequality spike. The good news is, while federal elections have fallen prey to dark money, Maine lawmakers are trying to level the playing field and ensure transparency.

Last year, we stepped up and banned corporations from contributing to individual legislative candidates as well to leadership PACs through the passage of LD 1417. With the passage of LD 1621, we also changed laws governing campaign finance to increase the punishment if legislators and their families misuse political funds for personal gain. We also considered legislation to ban foreign government-owned entities from making campaign contributions and expenditures in Maine elections. I believe that foreign entities should not have a say in our elections here in Maine, and my colleagues agreed with me. I was happy to vote to pass this bill. Unfortunately, it was vetoed by the governor. I’m hopeful for future efforts to prevent foreign groups from electioneering in Maine.

The Brennan Center for Justice argues that one of the best options for combating big money in politics are public funding models. Public financing models like the Maine Clean Elections Act leave the door open to candidates to reject private dollars and to be accountable to the people first. A larger, more comprehensive, and broader federal program could create longevity and sustainability for candidates at all levels.

If we want to close the revolving door in Washington and get big money out of local politics, it starts with campaign finance reform. The work to clean up campaign finance laws is not done, and I will continue to fight for clean, fair, and honest elections. It is important to increase transparency in election spending both here in Maine and at the federal level. Just because the federal government is unable or unwilling to pass stricter rules to prevent dark money and increase transparency, doesn’t mean that we should give up.

Sen. Dave Miramant, D-Knox