Super PACs Could Shape Next Presidential Elections

by Custom Legal Marketing

By Ren LaForme, Political Columnist – July 6, 2011

The presidential elections of 2008 were historic in that Americans elected the first black president, and some argue the 2012 elections could follow suit in momentousness – not because of who gets elected, but because of who does the electing.

Changes to election laws in the United States since the last elections – largely stemming from the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case – now allow corporations, unions, groups and individuals to raise unlimited funds for candidate elections.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit organization, could legally air television commercials and a documentary critical of Hilary Clinton just prior to the election. [1] This decision overturned the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 – which prohibited corporations and unions from using their funds to create ads mentioning a candidate just before an election – and made it possible for corporations and private entities to spend unlimited amounts of cash to publicly support or disparage a political candidate. [2]

Now, groups of all political affiliations are forming across the country in an attempt to influence the next presidential election. These groups are a form of political action committee, or PAC, officially called “independent-expenditure only committees” but more colloquially known as “super PACs”.

Since their inception in the early 1900s, PACs have been limited. They can only funnel $5,000 donations to candidates or $15,000 to political parties every year. Additionally, an individual may only donate up to $5,000 a year per PAC. [3]

Super PACs, however, have none of these restrictions. They allow for unlimited donations as long as the money goes toward targeted issues, or “independent expenditures”, and not directly to a campaign or political party. [4] Additionally, they permit direct attacks on candidates that were not allowed under previous laws. According to Trevor Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chairman, super PACs are the “clearest, easiest way to spend unlimited funds on an election.” [1]

A super PAC whose primary goal was to bring down Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010’s midterm elections demonstrated how a wealthy individual can attempt to shift the elections under these new rules. Joe Rickets, founder of Ameritrade and owner of the Chicago Cubs, funneled $600,000 into a super PAC called the “Ending Spending Fund” in Nevada. [4]

The fund bankrolled ads in the state highlighting Reid’s use of earmarks and criticizing him for engaging in “wasteful government”. The ads suggested they were paid for by concerned taxpayers, but they were funded solely by Rickets – who, according to election laws, was not even legally obligated to release his name.

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