Your Voice 2016

citizens divided

Why Hillary Clinton would support a ruling that hurts black Democrats in Alabama

Getty/Justin Sullivan

Normally, Joe Reed falls right in line with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment. But in one very big way, the black political organization that Reed runs is butting heads with the presidential nominee on one of her signature concerns: campaign finance reform.

Reed heads up the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), which has supported Clinton’s candidacy since February, as it did during her 2008 bid for the White House against current President Barack Obama. Reed has been part of Clinton’s Alabama Leadership Council since last November. He attended this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as a Clinton-pledged delegate. In short, Reed said his group’s work is a huge reason Clinton became the 2016 Democratic nominee in the first place.

“We’ve played a big role in the nomination, as far as I can tell,” he told me over the phone. “Alabama gave Hillary Clinton the highest percentage of votes in the primary than any other state, except for Mississippi.”

But there’s a sticking point that won’t go away any time soon—one that could have wide-ranging repercussions for Democrats who want to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. Ironically, it pit Reed and Clinton—his favorite Democrat—against each other because she’s pushing to reverse the decision, which said restrictions on the political spending of corporations and unions were unconstitutional.

Citizens United opened up the floodgates for shadowy spending, and made it so that political groups can raise as much money as they want for candidates or other political groups—so long as the spending isn’t coördinated with whoever’s receiving it. Democrats from Obama to Clinton’s former rival Bernie Sanders have made it a rallying point to call for the decision’s reversal.

Enter Reed and his ADC, Alabama’s largest grassroots political organization. The group has long received donations from and raised money for other political action committees, or PACs, to run get-out-the-vote campaigns. This was part of an ongoing effort to encourage black Democratic voters to hit the polls and build political power in Alabama, Reed argued. But in 2010, the state passed a law banning PACS from donating to each other.

In response, the ADC came up with a plan. Leaders opened up a separate bank account that was only used for PAC-to-PAC transfers, so it’d be easier for state regulators to track money, and fight off “concerns of corruption” that the 2010 law was trying to address. However, Alabama said this tactic still violated the law.

“What the law did is that it affected our ability to raise money to get out the vote.”

- Joe Reed, head of the Alabama Democratic Conference

“What the law did is that it affected our ability to raise money to get out the vote,” Reed said.

So, the ADC took the state to court last year, and used Citizens United—that decision despised by Clinton and other Democrats—in its defense. A lower court agreed with the ADC, concluding that in the wake of Citizens United, Alabama’s PAC-to-PAC ban was unconstitutional and “infringed the organization’s First Amendment rights.”

But last week, a federal appeals court ruled against the ADC’s case—and therefore key parts of Citizens United. And when lower federal courts challenge Supreme Court opinions, it gives the latter incentive to take up the issue again. In other words, it’s exactly what Clinton and many Democrats want to happen—even if it comes at the expense of black Democrats in Alabama.

“It is a matter of law, therefore, that the state’s interest in preventing corruption or its appearance is sufficiently important to justify its decision to regulate political contributions and those transactions, including donations to PACs, that relate or appear to relate to such contributions,” according to the ruling.

Put another way, states can pass laws for stopping corruption, even if it means regulating some of the things that Citizens United explicitly allowed.

“What you see in people taking different sides of cases in lower levels, is that they argue their cases based on what will help their organization, and that is sometimes different in terms of long-term principles of the party,” said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Every Voice Center, an organization that focuses on campaign reform.

But in the long-term, the ADC’s case actually benefits Democrats. “[The recent ruling] is an important decision because it’s part of this larger context in the potential for a new court to be relooking at these Citizens United questions,” Nyhart told me.

For the ADC’s Reed, last week’s ruling is a profound injustice. Founded in 1960, the group “never had any accusations of corruption, or had anyone question our procedure, because it’s an open book,” he insisted.

Reed argues—and others agree—that Alabama’s 2010 law was written specifically to stop the ADC’s grassroots efforts.

“This is just another way to try to cripple black people’s right to unite, caucus, and support the candidate of their choosing,” he said, citing a racial gerrymandering case the ADC brought semi-successfully against Alabama to the Supreme Court last year. “This is going to have an adverse impact on the get-out-the-vote effort in this election”

“This is just another way to try to cripple black people’s right to unite, caucus and support the candidate of their choosing.”

- Reed

“The Democratic Party got some challenges in Alabama.”

While this doesn’t look good for black Democrats in Alabama, it’s a sign that the dream of overturning Citizens United isn’t just a hollow rallying cry for Democrats across the country, according to Every Voice Center’s Nyhart. However, one lingering question in this fight remains: Which Supreme Court justice will replace Antonin Scalia, who died last year?

“The next court might not be of the same mind as the court that originally ruled on it. But that might be very different with a fifth justice who is more open-minded who is looking at this anew,” Nyhart said.

The ADC case has caused a “deepening circuit split on the issue,” as Bloomberg’s Noah Feldman noted. The logical end to this split is that the Supreme Court will reassess some of these same issues in the not-too-distant future, and maybe even revise the Citizens United ruling.

“Today, I’m announcing that in my first 30 days as president, I will propose a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and give the American people, all of us, the chance to reclaim our democracy,” Clinton said in a video released in July. “I will also appoint Supreme Court justices who understand that this decision was a disaster for our democracy.”

The ADC is trying to decide whether it’ll appeal last week’s ruling. If it does, the case would go straight to the Supreme Court—something that Clinton and many Democrats would love, but not for the same reasons.