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Senator Jon Tester

Harvard Law School Speech
Citizens United, Democracy, and Ensuring the Rights of Individuals in the Political Process
November 7, 2014
Thank you very much, Professor Coates. Its an honor to be here.
Ill be frank: Not too many farmers from north-central Montana get to speak at Harvard. In fact, I bet
Im the first.
Now, dont get me wrong: Montanans place great value on education. My grandmother, who settled
in the Big Sky State in 1912, insisted her children get a college degree.
The importance of a good education was passed down to my mother, who told me that public
education and family farm agriculture were the cornerstones of our democracy.
But it turned out that Harvard was a little beyond my reach. So instead of coming east, in 1974 I
headed 75 miles southwest to the College of Great Falls or what I like to call The Harvard of the
But its better late than never. And forty years later, I have a few things Id like to say on my first visit
to Harvard.
A few things Ive learned over my decades in public service
A few things Ive learned in two high-profile campaigns for the U.S. Senate
And a few things Ive learned about our campaign finance system in the age of Citizens United.
So, with that in mind, truly thank you for inviting me. Im honored to be part of todays event.
These are critical times for our democracy and the future of our country.
We must have this conversation. And it must make a difference.
Because if we dont move quickly and forcefully to get big money out of our elections, it will give the
wealthy a vise grip on our government. It will drown out the voices of regular folks.
And it will embolden those with the deepest pockets to take further action to keep shaping the
electorate how they see fit.
We need action, and we need it NOW.
But why am I your keynote speaker? What puts me in the middle of the debate over campaign
finance reform and our election system?

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First, I represent Montana in the U.S. Senate. My state has passed some of the most comprehensive
campaign finance laws in the country. We have led the charge to keep politicians honest and big
money out of our elections.
Montanas commitment to tough campaign finance laws speaks to the character of Montanans and
my commitment to improving transparency and accountability in government is grounded in
Montanas values.
As you know, in 2013, I introduced a Constitutional Amendment to clarify that corporations are not
people. I also co-sponsored an amendment introduced by Senator Tom Udall to return the right to
regulate elections to the federal government and the states.
And I have introduced an array of bills to improve transparency and accountability in government.
Transparency and accountability were key issues during my first Senate campaign in 2006 against
former Senator Conrad Burns.
My race against Conrad Burns garnered national attention. That campaign may be the first time you
heard of this seven-fingered farmer from Big Sandy, Montana.
Burns had deep ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He inserted earmarks that had nothing to
do with Montana into Appropriations bills at Abramoffs request. His staff took trips on Abramoffs
dime. And there was a revolving door between their two offices.
Corruption in government became a major issue in our campaign, and I ran on the platform of
cleaning up Washington.
I gained traction because Montanans care deeply about clean, honest and open government. Its part
of who we are, and it comes from our history and our geography
Now, you may not know much about Montana.
You may know that its a large state we share a 545 mile border with Canada
You may know its western portion is covered in mountains our tallest peak tops out at 12, 800 feet.
And you may know we are home to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks which, by the way, are
now quite accessible thanks to more direct flights.
Please come visit, and bring your tourism dollars
But theres one thing you need to know for the purposes of todays conversation. And that is that
over 100 years ago, Montana was far ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to limiting the
influence of money in elections.
In 1912, my grandparents had just started plowing their fields outside Big Sandy.
In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt had just finished serving as the President of the Harvard Alumni
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And in 1912, Montanans approved the Corrupt Practices Act that banned direct corporate spending in
Talk about being ahead of our time.
We demanded fair elections because we were tired of wealthy mining corporations operating our
state government like it was a branch of their companies.
For decades, mining companies sucked up wealth from our copper and mineral reserves to build vast
corporate empires.
These corporations controlled newspapers, intimidated workers and bought influence among
lawmakers. One wealthy mining magnate, William Clark, even purchased himself a U.S. Senate
He literally bought the votes of the legislature by paying off mortgages, giving away ranches and
handing out envelopes full of cold, hard cash.
It was outrageous, and it was made possible by extreme wealth and the sheer remoteness of our
As a result, Montana was run by the wealthy, for the wealthy. Profits came first, ahead of workers
rights, fair laws, and the publics well-being.
So in 1912, Montanans took a stand.
Our campaign finance laws worked pretty well for a century. In 1971, we even passed one of the
most progressive state constitutions to date, enshrining into law protections for clean air, clean water,
and the right to a quality education.
But two years ago, citing its Citizens United decision, the United States Supreme Court overruled
Montanas Supreme Court and struck down the Corrupt Practices Act.
Montanans quickly fought back, just like we did one hundred years ago. In 2012, we passed a
popular referendum by a three to one margin calling on Montanas Congressional delegation to
overturn Citizens United.
I am proud to have accepted this challenge.
I will keep fighting for my amendment because its what Montanans want, because its good for our
country, and because I deeply believe that corporations and the wealthy few with the support of this
Supreme Court are drowning out the voices of regular American citizens.
Thats not what the founders of this country wanted. They envisioned a country where everyone had
a say in how they were governed.
But todays system breeds lawmakers who listen to wealthy donors at the expense of their
constituents. It puts the elites priorities first.

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And perhaps, most importantly, todays system elects too many leaders from the political extremes
who refuse to work together. The lack of compromise keeps us from tackling big issues like
immigration, our budget, and our education system that must be addressed if America is to remain
a world leader.
But the importance that Montanans place on keeping the influence of corporations and big money out
of politics is NOT widely shared by the American public.
When the Supreme Court issued its McCutcheon decision in April, just 13 percent of people surveyed
by Pew Research said they were following the ruling very closely.
Looking at the Citizens United case in 2010, just 20 percent said they had heard a lot about that
decision in the two weeks after the ruling. The remaining 80 percent said they had heard little or
nothing about the decision.
But overall, the public does follow the Supreme Court. The same researchers who asked about
campaign finance also found that nearly half of the American public paid close attention to the health
care ruling in 2012.
And the number of people closely following other Supreme Court decisions and big news stories
dwarfs those following campaign finance.
Not even the explosion of money in politics is able to spur the public to demand campaign finance
The incredible increase in candidate and outside party spending in campaigns is well-documented at
this point.
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, ad spending surpassed 1 billion dollars for the 2014
elections. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the total price tag for the mid-terms will be
nearly 4 billion dollars.
It was the most expensive mid-term election ever, and it lays the groundwork for a 2016 Presidential
race that could break 10 billion dollars.
How many better ways can you think of to spend that kind of money? I can think of more than a few.
This arms race is between candidates, parties, SuperPACs and independent groups. No one can
afford not to play the game. And we have this Supreme Court to thank for it
Citizens United let corporations and big money donors plow unlimited and unaccountable money into
elections. And if the court blew open the doors of campaign finance reform with Citizens United, the
McCutcheon case keeps tearing down the house.
In 2012, just twelve hundred Americans hit the contribution caps that the McCutcheon case threw
out. Thats one thousand two hundred people in a country of three hundred and twenty million.
This decision lets the elite spread their money and their influence further, giving them a say over
more races and more lawmakers.
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Eliminating overall contribution limits to political candidates and party committees is one step away
from eliminating individual campaign contribution limits.
And we should all be worried if we eliminate individual limits, because it will turn candidates and
lawmakers into puppets for millionaires and billionaires.
Think about it, why put in the hard work of listening to constituents when all you need is a couple of
rich friends? Why knock doors in small, rural towns when you can go door-to-door in New York City?
This Supreme Court just doesnt get it. Theyve studied law, politics and history. But they clearly
dont understand the corrosive power of uncontrolled money in politics.
They dont have a grasp of the situation on the ground. The Koch Brothers rake in billions every
year. The average Montana household pulled in forty-five thousand dollars in 2012.
Who do you think is going to have a bigger influence on the political process?
Who do you think will run more ads?
Threaten lawmakers with outside advertising campaigns?
Or punish politicians who dont bend to their will?
The wealthy? Or regular folks?
And what message are we sending to regular voters? The folks who put in an honest days work to
make ends meet and dont see any progress coming out of Washington?
Were telling them that their voices dont matter. They are being told we dont care what you think -just watch this advertisement paid for by a group youve never heard of, whose donors live out of
state, and whose motives are not clear.
Thats what our elections system has come to.
Maybe thats one reason why a recent Washington Post-ABC survey found less interest in the
recently concluded mid-terms than those in 2010 or 2006. The survey found only a quarter of
registered voters paid close attention to the campaigns.
These folks school teachers, bus drivers, farmers want to believe that policymakers in
Washington are listening to them, not some secretive SuperPAC with a name like Putting America
Ill tell you right now, if these groups are really putting America first, the first thing they can do is
reveal their donors so Americans know who is trying to buy their votes. Thats a simple,
straightforward step that I would like to see to increase accountability and transparency.
The explosion of money in politics is a threat to our democracy and its only made worse when that
money is secret and untraceable.
Together, they leave regular Americans on the outside looking in.
I stepped into the post-Citizens United world in 2012.
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In 2006, spending by Conrad Burns and myself totaled about 15 million dollars. Burns spent 9.2
million. Thanks to tremendous support from Montanans and individuals who rallied to our cause, my
campaign which started as a true bare-bones operation spent less than 6 million dollars.
I won by just over 3,500 votes. The race wasnt decided until the morning after Election Day.
2012 was a new world order. The total price tag for my 2012 Senate re-election race spending by
candidates and other groups topped 50 million dollars. Thats more than $100 for every vote cast.
Here are some numbers from my 2012 race:
The Sunlight Foundation estimated that about $14 million in dark, unaccountable money was spent.
The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks TV campaign ads, said nearly 90,000 separate ads ran
from June through October. That was more than any other Senate contest in the country.
In fact, over a three week period in October, Montanans were exposed to more than 25,000 TV
ads. Wisconsin, with nearly six times Montanas population, came in second. TV viewers there saw
fewer than 18,000 ads during that period.
And here is what might be the most compelling stat: According to Open, outside spending
increased nearly 600 percent from just over 4 million dollars to more than 25 million dollars from
my 2006 race to 2012.
Thats a prime example of what Citizens United has done. Its shifted power from candidates to
outside groups and special interests. Their hand is far stronger today than it was just a few years
Americans are starting to tune out these millions of TV ads. And as they do, outside groups will use
more and more social media and the internet to drive certain voters to the polls while keeping others
at home. Its one reason were seeing efforts by some to regulate the internet to their advantage.
But numbers just like words dont tell the whole story. Sometimes, it takes a picture.
This photo caught a lot of eyes in Montana and around the country. It may have been the first time
many of you saw me since my race in 2006.
Take a close look at my left hand. Anything look different to you on the screen?
Thats right, the National Republican Senatorial Committee gave me my three fingers back. I lost
them to a meat grinder on the farm when I was nine years old.
I appreciate the Republicans giving them back, the party certainly didnt do me any other favors
during the campaign. But they didnt do it because they were feeling charitable; they did it because
they were out-of-touch.
They did it because they didnt know Montana. Because they didnt know me. And because they
wanted to make me into something Im not.

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Just like other groups with too much money to spend, they put their own priorities ahead of those of
Montanans. They werent focused on the issues that mattered most in Montana, like preserving our
public lands or improving access to health care.
But I did. Its why I won by 18,000 votes or about five times my margin in 2006.
I won because we ran a strong race and overcame special interest spending to get my message
out. I was able to push back against ominous ads saying I was ruining the country by reminding the
voters that I put Montana first.
But to do it, I had to play the game. To overcome money from out-of-state groups like American
Crossroads and the Koch Brothers, I had to spend hours on the phone raising money.
I made phone calls in Washington, D.C., in Montana, even from the airplane. I traveled to California,
New York and Chicago to make my case to donors.
Now, my donors knew that their money wasnt going to get them any favors. And its always better
for money to go directly to the candidates than to outside, secretive groups.
But every minute I was forced to spend with a donor was another minute I didnt spend meeting with a
constituent or working on policy. I could have spent that time meeting with a rancher from eastern
Montana or working to reform our housing finance system.
The current system forces candidates to make decisions about how they spend their time. It pulls
them away from the jobs they were elected to do. And it forces them to choose between raising
money to make sure voters hear their message or laying down and letting the opposition walk all over
Its an arms race that all sides must play. And by far, the biggest loser is the American people.
I consider myself a survivor of the post-Citizens United era. But others havent been and wont be
so lucky.
Some candidates wont be able to raise the money needed to compete with big, outside
spenders. Further down the ballot, it becomes even tougher.
And races that were traditionally non-partisan will become political and nasty as money seeps into
more campaigns.
Take the two Supreme Court races in Montana this year. One was more-or-less business as usual,
the other became highly political.
In that race, mailers and TV ads hit the incumbent over his past rulings and affiliations. An
independent group called Montanans for Fair Justice jumped into the fray. Spending skyrocketed,
rebuttals were aired and people retreated to their ideological corners.
Academic institutions even got involved.
The challenger called the incumbent judge a liberal activist.
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Saying the incumbent quote judges like a Democrat he received tens of thousands of dollars
from the national Republican State Leadership Committee.
Special interests came to dominate the campaign.
Remember, this race was for a position in the judicial branch the branch that is supposed to be
above the political fray so it can make decisions based on the law.
It leads me to ask two questions: what does all this spending mean and where do we go from here?
From a governing standpoint, it means we simply cant compromise over big pieces of legislation.
A lot of folks in the Senate and the House talk about working together. They talk about reaching
across the aisle.
But the threat of big money coming after them in their next election holds them back. Ive seen
colleagues hesitate to introduce bills that are popular in their home states because they were afraid it
would spur big-moneyed outside groups to spend millions to defeat them.
When that happens, it leaves constituents without a real say in who represents them.
Lawmakers are also held back by the hostile political climate these expensive campaigns
create. When you constantly see an ad that distorts your record and then you see a fellow Senator
from out-of-state endorse it it makes it hard to compromise on legislation.
Politicians also know that the most money in campaigns is on the extremes of the political
spectrum. And the extremes fight almost any sign of compromise and the folks working together to
get things done.
Heck, why do you think we have trouble simply confirming ambassadors?
Its because compromise is a dirty word. It leads me to wonder: could we do big things today like our
predecessors did? Could we pull together to build the interstate highway system or send a man to
the moon?
Supporters of the current system defend their views by citing their Constitutional right to free
speech. But I guarantee you that our Founding Fathers men like George Washington and Thomas
Jefferson werent envisioning our current campaign finance system when they said Congress
couldnt prevent someone from speaking out.
Leaders like Washington and Jefferson had visions for our nation. But they knew America would
change with the times as new technologies developed and new lands came into the union.
After all, there was no Montana back in 1787.
And if the framers warned against political parties, I can only imagine what they would say about the
rise of Super PACs.
Its time to ask: Who is protecting the free speech of regular, working-class people? Who is
protecting the voice of the schoolteacher or the repairman from being drowned out by special
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Theres been a lot of talk about amending the Constitution to get our election system back under
control. I mentioned my amendment and Senator Udalls amendment earlier.
I want to make it clear that I do not want to limit First Amendment rights. Growing up in Montana, I
have deep respect for the Constitution and what it stands for. I do not take amending it lightly.
But our election system is broken. We must take action. There are small steps and there are large
ones. All are necessary.
Here is an example of a seemingly simple piece of legislation. In addition to my Constitutional
Amendment, I have introduced a bill to require all Senate candidates to electronically file their
campaign finance reports.
It is 2014. We have phones that allow us to communicate instantly around the world. And we have
satellites that can pinpoint our location within feet.
But Senate campaigns dont have to file their finance reports online, making them instantly available
to the public. Even though Presidential and House candidates must.
Instead, government workers print out reams of paper and enter them into a database one by one. It
costs taxpayers about a half-million dollars a year, it costs workers time, and it can prevent campaign
finance reports from being available until after Election Day.
My bill is supported by over half the Senate. It would pass if it could get a vote.
But because of Senate rules, one person can hold it up. One person can keep Americans in the dark.
On behalf of those Americans who need a voice, we cant sit on the sidelines.
Because if we dont rein in the abuses in our campaign finance system
If we dont pass legislation to get big money out of elections
And if we dont give regular Americans a real say in how they are governed, we might as well hang a
For Sale sign on the doors of the Capitol.
We will embolden the wealthy few and corporations to keep marching forward.
Because sometimes, like we saw in 2012 in Montana and nationally, groups like the Koch Brothers
wont get their way.
Theyll spend millions of dollars to buy votes, but Americans will still have their say.
So theyll take the next step. Its one were already seeing from Texas, to North Carolina to
In those states and many others third parties are pushing laws to keep certain folks out of the
voting booth.
They see the work being done by the other side to target voters and get them to the polls. So they
are fighting back by weakening voter protection laws. By restricting same day voter registration and
early voting. And by requiring certain identification to vote.
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Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court allowed Texas to use its strict voter ID law in the recent
election. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg said the court risked denying the right to vote to hundreds
of thousands of eligible voters. Many of them were African-Americans or Hispanics.
What it all boils down to is this: if big money cant get you to vote how they want you to, theyll do
everything they can to keep you from voting.
With this Supreme Court at their side, they are shaping the electorate to their whim. Out goes one
person, one vote and in comes more backroom deals and cigar smoke.
Our election system is becoming one big arms race. From your TV screen to your local precinct,
corporations and big money are determined to influence who votes and how they vote.
Look, this shouldnt be a partisan issue. Folks on both sides of the aisle demand campaign finance
Its not partisan in Montana. When I go home, folks of all stripes get bent out-of-shape when they see
ads or mailers from out-of-state groups.
Thats because theres only one million of us. And we have a history of interference in our elections.
But this issue needs to resonate beyond Big Sandy, Montana and beyond the Big Sky State. There
need to be more events like todays and they must lead to real change.
Like most issues, its going to take strong, grassroots pressure to make Congress take notice and
change course. And without a return to at least the pre-Citizens United landscape, were headed for
a scandal soon.
Mark my words: All the money in sloshing around in our political system will lead to another
It wont be easy to reform our election system, but we must keep trying. To me, efforts like the
DISCLOSE Act and Constitutional Amendments are NOT just for show.
They are the keys to keeping our country great.
When I look at what we need to accomplish policies that empower and grow the middle class,
modern immigration and education systems, and a budget that supports our future generations I
see campaign finance reform as THE critical building block.
If we get big, special interest money out of our elections, it will force lawmakers to listen to their
constituents. Those constituents regular, middle-class folks want compromise. [PICTURE]
They want politicians to work together to forge solutions that move us all forward. But without
campaign finance reform, they wont be heard.
And we will continue to have a debate dominated by the loudest, the wealthiest and the most selfinterested
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At its heart, this debate is about what kind of government we want to pass down to our kids and
grandkids. They deserve a government that works for them. One that is transparent, fair and honest.
Cambridge is a long way from Big Sandy, but despite the distance there are values we share as
You and I together can be part of the solution. Our work can be remembered for changing the
direction of this country. For living up to the ideals of our Founders.
And for accomplishing something no one thought we could accomplish.
Its an honor to finally visit Harvard. And its an honor to speak here before you, especially about
such an important issue. One that holds the fate of our country in its hands.
Thank you very much for this opportunity. I look forward to your questions.

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