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Sen. Tom Udall at Tuesday's rally in front of the Supreme Court.

Senate Democrats unify behind altering the Constitution to curb campaign money

Senate Democrats on Tuesday announced they were all behind a constitutional amendment that would shrink the sway of big money in politics.

But the unanimity, while symbolically important for the party's democracy reform messaging in the 2020 campaign, means next to nothing when it comes to actually changing the regulation of campaign finance.

Altering the Constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate and House, plus ratification by 38 states. And Republicans in Congress (and in most of the statehouses) are just as unified in their opposition as the Democratic senators are in favor of their proposal. It would effectively overturn the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission — which held that unlimited political spending by corporations, nonprofit organizations and labor unions was a protected form of free speech — by permitting Congress and states set rules on spending and donations in elections.


"Few decisions in the 200-and-some odd years of this republic have threatened our democracy like Citizens United. People say they want to get rid of the swamp. Citizens United is the embodiment of the swamp," Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said at a rally outside the court, across the street from the Capitol. "Overturning Citizens United is probably more important than any other single thing we could do to preserve this great and grand democracy."

Dozens of democracy reform advocates and six other senators also braved high humidity and temperatures in the low 90s.

"It was here where our democracy was put up for sale," Tom Udall of New Mexico said. "The big money interests are buying our democracy."

Udall, who is retiring next year, has pushed for such an amendment in each Congress since the case was decided. It's only received a vote once, five years ago, when the 54 votes from Democrats were 13 shy of the supermajority required to guarantee success.

The proposal has never been put to a vote on the House floor. It now enjoys the cosponsorship of 129 of the 235 Democrats and a singular Republican, John Katko of upstate New York.

It's extremely unlikely Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in implacable foe of campaign finance regulation, will arrange a Senate vote before the next election even though his side would be almost guaranteed to prevail. It's unclear if the Democratic majority in the House has any interest in conducting a vote to test the proposal's strength — knowing 290 votes there are unachievable.

Overturning Citizens United has been a nearly unifying democracy reform stance of the Democratic presidential hopefuls as well. All but two of the 20 candidates who will be debating in Detroit this week are in favor of reversing the Supreme Court precedent, though some favor a constitutional amendment and others hope the court under an ideologically different, more liberal majority would reverse the decision.

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Swing states build 2020 hacking protections: Will they hold?

With the presidency on the ballot in less than a year, fears of another attempt by Russia or other foreign powers to interfere in the election seem to grow with each passing day.

But in the battlegrounds where the outcome will be decided — the 13 states almost certain to be most hotly contested by both parties — election security has been tightening and the opportunities for a successful hacking of American democracy are being greatly reduced, a review of the procedures and equipment on course to be used in each state in November 2020 makes clear.

"There's been a huge amount of progress since 2016," says Elaine Kamarck, an election security expert at the Brookings Institution. James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, says his assessment of the fight against election interference results in feeling "confident that a lot has been done to make it better."

In fact, many who work on the issue now cite the public's perception that our election systems are vulnerable as a problem at least as great as the actual threat.

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The 13 states where election security matters most

Along with the candidates and the issues, the 2020 presidential election is also going to be about the voting process itself.

Russian efforts to hack into the voting systems of 2016 have boosted election security to a critical concern this time, prompting states to spend tens of millions buying new equipment, hiring cybersecurity wizards and installing software that warns of intrusions — among numerous other steps. More purchases of hardware, software and expertise are coming in the months ahead.

Whether enough money gets spent, and wisely, won't be known for sure until Nov. 3, 2020 — when the system will be subject to the one test that really matters. And whether the country decides the presidential election result is trustworthy will likely come down to how reliably things work in the relatively small number of states both nominees are contesting.

[Swing states build 2020 hacking protections: Will they hold?]

With 11 months to go, The Fulcrum reviewed information from state elections officials, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Election Assistance Commission and news reports to get a sense of the election security landscape. Here's the state of play in the 13 states likeliest to be presidential battlegrounds.

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"Money in our political system has completely eroded the promise of a functioning and just democracy," argues Wambui Gatheru.

For the young, getting big money out of politics is the cause of our time

Gatheru is the outreach manager at American Promise, which advocates for amending the Constitution to permit laws that regulate the raising and spending of campaign funds. She graduated two years ago from the University of Connecticut.

When young Americans come together, we can make a big impact. That's what we've seen throughout history. Alexander Hamilton and Betsy Ross were in their early 20s during the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass was 23 years old when he took the stage at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Alice Paul through her 20s led the fight for the 19th Amendment and women's voting rights.

And that's what we're seeing today in youth-led climate movements around the globe and the movement to end mass shootings here in the United States. But one issue that doesn't get as much attention sits at the root of our modern problems: big money in politics.

Money in our political system has completely eroded the promise of a functioning and just democracy. Due to a series of Supreme Court cases, corporations have the same rights as humans, special interests control Capitol Hill and democracy only works for those who can afford it. This is the dystopia my generation has inherited.

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Howard Dean and Barack Obama pioneered the drive for small-dollar contributors. Now, such donations have become an important measuring stick and may be contributing to increased polarization.

Small-dollar gifts hardly a cure-all for money’s smear on politics, one professor argues

The explosion of small-donor political contributions is often celebrated and extolled as one of the few positive developments amid all the problems facing the democracy reform movement.

Not so fast, argues New York University law school professor Richard Pildes. In a new essay published in the Yale Law Journal Forum, he argues the proliferation of modest contributions to candidates may be contributing to more political polarization and, at least, requires more careful examination.

Pildes also says the proposals to promote more small-donor giving that are part of the House Democrats' comprehensive political process overhaul, known as HR 1, could have unintended negative consequences.

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