Governor Andrew Cuomo challenged the New York State Legislature to lead the fight against Citizens United by passing campaign finance reform before its current session ends, during a speech at Fordham Law School on Wednesday, June 8.
Cuomo, a 1979 Fordham University graduate, delivered his remarks on curbing the power of independent expenditure campaigns in conjunction with the release of a governor’s counsel opinion laying out criteria to regulators and law enforcement officials on existing state law and whether coordination existed between these campaigns and the candidates they supported.
According to Cuomo, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) has created a perverse political system in which collusion and fraud are rampant and the voices of millions of American voters are disenfranchised. Citizens United held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation, a principle since extended to for-profit corporations, labor unions, and other associations.
The governor implored New York legislators to enact laws protecting voters before this fall’s elections rather than waiting for the Supreme Court to overturn its ruling in the future.
“They can lead this effort to reform or they can perpetuate the status quo,” Cuomo said of the legislature, whose session ends next week. “My friends, the status quo is unacceptable.”
Cuomo also called upon the legislature to pass comprehensive ethics reform, in addition to campaign finance reform. State voters demand ethics reform, the governor said, in the wake of two prominent New York state legislators being sentenced to prison on corruption charges in 2016.
“Let the clean elections and democracy restoration movement start here,” Cuomo said. New York’s early support of marriage equality and the $15 minimum wage influenced the national conversation, he added, and the same could be true for its campaign finance and ethics reforms, if the legislature takes action.
Fordham Law Dean Matthew Diller thanked Cuomo for “announcing this incredibly important initiative” at the Law School and praised him as “a man for others,” in step with the Law School’s motto, “In the service of others.”
Cuomo’s 30-minute speech focused extensively on Citizens United, which he labeled one of the most regressive decisions in Supreme Court history, as well as one of the most politically damaging for devaluing the voices of individual voters. As a result of the controversial decision, a small number of extremely wealthy individuals’ paid speech now dominates the majority’s free speech.
“Citizens United said, ‘Money talks and big money talks louder,’” Cuomo said, explaining that, in today’s political climate, the voices of those unable to make large contributions were “no more than a whisper.” Or, put another way: The contributions of the top 100 donors equal the bottom 4.75 million citizens, the governor said.
Cuomo criticized the Federal Election Commission for being “complacent” on campaign finance and said it was up to the state to “fill the void.” Come November, voters must feel like their vote counted and that the elections process was clean and fair, he said.
“I am afraid we’ll get to election night and voters will feel like they were scammed,” Cuomo said, noting the problem stretches beyond party lines and to the very heart of democracy.