On Jan. 19, our country celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., half a century after his work — chronicled in the recent Oscar-nominated movie “Selma” — helped inspire passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Next week will also be the five-year anniversary of another momentous event for our democracy: the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which gave corporations and groups the right to spend unlimited money to influence elections. The two anniversaries are more closely linked than many realize. The 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches — and the brutal backlash to them from Alabama state troopers — galvanized national support for the Voting Rights Act, changing the balance of power in the South. Building on years of local organizing, “roughly a million new voters were registered within a few years after the [Voting Rights Act] became law,” says historian Alexander Keyssar in his seminal book “The Right to Vote,” “with African-American registration soaring to a record 62 percent.”
While Selma and the Voting Rights Act strengthened the voice of ordinary voters, Citizens United has heightened the power of mega-rich donors. By opening the treasuries of companies, unions and other groups to limitless political spending, the decision has fueled a spending spree on elections, especially by outside groups not tied to a candidate.
According to a new report by the Brennan Center, outside spending in U.S. Senate races has doubled since 2010, to more than $486 million in 2014. In the 10 most competitive Senate races last year, outside groups accounted for the largest share of cash (47 percent). Having more money doesn’t automatically guarantee victory for a candidate, but it certainly plays a role: By one estimate, the better-financed candidate in congressional races wins 91 percent of the time.
But there’s another, more direct connection between the issues of protecting voting rights and curbing Big Money’s influence: the role of skyrocketing election spending in exacerbating racial inequality.