As high court hears big-money donor case, N.J. activists call for constitutional amendment

TRENTON – With a critical argument on big money’s effect on elections being heard today at the U.S. Supreme Court, activists in New Jersey called on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to protect the power of an individual’s vote.

As the case known as McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission is being heard before the high court, the N.J. Public Interest Research Group, the Sierra Club, Main Street Alliance, and concerned residents gathered to protest what they see as the encroaching power of corporate political donations at the expense of individual voices.

“The last thing we need is more big money flooding our elections,” said NJPIRG program associate Peter Skopec, who argues that if the court eventually rules in favor of McCutcheon, then overall limits essentially will be lifted on what donors can give to candidates or parties during a federal election cycle.

The 2014 limit is $123,200, and the advocates claim that if aggregate limits are lifted, then donors could give up to $3.5 million.

Since during the 2012 election cycle only 1,200 or so donors came close to hitting that limit, raising the bar farther would ensure that money – and the political influence that accompanies it – would be increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer donors, Skopec and others argued.

The effect on New Jersey would be dramatic, he said. There were 240 so-called McCutcheon “big money’’ donors in the 2012 election cycle who gave within 10 percent of the aggregate limit in the state, and approximately 93 percent of those donors – 224 of them – were from out of state, he said. “It will super-size the influence of big out-of-state donors’’ if McCutcheon succeeds before the high court, Skopec said.

Given the history of the court – it ruled in the Citizens United case in 2010 that the First Amendment bars restrictions on political expenditures by corporations or labor unions – the activists believe their best route to success is garnering congressional support for a constitutional amendment.

They said that so far in N.J., Democrats Sen. Bob Menendez and Reps. Rush Holt, Bill Pascrell and Frank Pallone have expressed support for their cause.

“Money does buy influence,’’ said Susannah Newman, founder of New Jersey for the Overturn of Citizens United. “The question before the Supreme Court now is what is their definition of corruption?”

The McCutcheon case involves Alabama businessman and political donor Shaun McCutcheon who argues the limits are a constitutional violation of rights.

"Plato didn’t think much of it [democracy] as a system of government, but then again Plato had a world of forms removed from reality where he could take refuge from the collisions of society."
—PolitickerNJ