This sunny Sunday, as we look forward to the Democratic Convention, New York State Senator Liz Krueger writes a timely guest column on why we must save our democracy from Citizens United.

Why We Must Reverse the Attack on Our Democracy from Citizens United through a Constitutional Amendment

by Liz Krueger, New York State Senate, 28th District

Just across from Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, site of this year's Democratic National Convention, is a small museum housing the famous Liberty Bell. For a century the bell summoned local citizens to participate in the grassroots democracy that forms the foundation of our American ideal. But in the 1840s, after years of hard use, the bell received too hard a blow - it cracked, and no longer able to ring, it fell silent.

Six years ago our contemporary democracy received such a blow, one that threatens to silence the voices of the kind of ordinary citizens who responded to the Liberty Bell. In 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled in the now-infamous Citizens United decision that corporations have the same First Amendment rights to political speech as people, and that money constitutes a form of that speech. Citizens United toppled dozens of state and federal laws and decades of judicial precedent regulating spending in political campaigns, and led to the breakdown of barriers to unlimited independent expenditures from individuals as well. This was followed by a disastrous decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which invalidated aggregate federal contribution limits, again swelling the undue influence of money in elections.

Fortunately Hillary Clinton, our Democratic presidential nominee, recognizes the dire effects of Citizens United, and the crisis it has caused in our electoral system. She has said that in her first 30 days in office, she will propose a Constitutional amendment that would allow Americans to establish common-sense rules to protect against the influence of billionaires and special interests, and restore the role of average voters in elections. Her leadership on this issue is vital, because the evidence from across the country is clear – the crack in our Liberty Bell has already formed, and we must repair it soon or risk silencing our democracy for good.

Constitutional Amendments are not easy. Here is the process.

The effects of Citizens United are being felt in federal, state, and local elections across the country. In my own state of New York, a federal district judge, bound by the Supreme Court's decision, struck down a state law that limited contributions to "Super PACs," superseding New Yorkers' rights to regulate our own elections.

Rulings like this have already corrupted our election process, and secret money is pouring in at every level. The barriers to entry into the political process have been raised as costs have been driven up, and facts have been distorted beyond recognition. In the 2012 federal elections in New York, spending by out-of-state organizations was 15 times higher than the amount spent in 2008. 170 donors -- just 1/10th of 1% of the population -- gave more than half of all the money contributed to state candidates in 2013. This trend will surely result in our elections going to the highest bidders and to candidates most favored by an infinitesimal elite of election buyers.

New York City has one of the strongest small donor public matching campaign finance laws in the country. But post Citizens United, a small group of real estate executives and corporate bigwigs created a "Super PAC" that spent nearly $10 million to make sure the City Council elected in 2013 was "friendly to real estate and development." Given the City's strict rules for candidates, the sums the PAC raised and spent were radically greater than the amount the Council candidates could raise themselves. At the time Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause NY, indicated that the multimillion dollar effort was a significant shift in city politics that "undercuts the neighborhood-based nature of a district and replaces neighborhood concerns with industry concerns."

Last year the biggest lobbying spender in New York State put over $5 million into a campaign to create a nearly 100% tax break for donations to private and charter schools, which would starve the state of revenue that could otherwise be used for public education. A recently created "Super PAC" in support of this effort raised over $2 million in its first few months of operations from a handful of financial executives. Campaigns like this, to funnel money out of public schools and into the pockets of hedge-fund billionaires, can only succeed because the voices of regular Americans are shouted down by the beneficiaries of Citizens United.

The people of New York and all other states must be afforded the power to limit money in our politics. Hillary Clinton's proposed Constitutional amendment would establish that artificial entities created by law are not entitled to the same rights and protections under the Constitution as natural persons. It also guarantees the power of federal, state, and local governments to limit, regulate, and require full source disclosure of all money spent to influence elections.

Every election cycle dominated by the power of big money brings us one step closer to irreparable damage. Artisans in Philadelphia were unable to make the cracked Liberty Bell ring again, but it is not too late to fix our broken democracy. Hillary Clinton understands this. That is why we must send her to the White House, and that is why I'm with her.

July 24, 2016

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