Dark Money Overshadows Clean Elections

It has become apparent that the decision of the Supreme Court, known as “Citizens United”, has allowed an insidious virus that has infected the election process throughout the country.  The effects on state and local elections are apparent.  The results of rampant “Dark Money” spent in the last two election cycles are obvious and overwhelming.  For many, the logic is simple…Dark Money will eventually destroy a most important fundamental right – the right of citizens to vote in a fair election.  By allowing gigantic sums of money, freely spent by anonymous (wealthy and powerful) donors, our legislatures and governmental leaders have been compromised.  This is not the way Democracy should operate.

In common discourse, the “Citizens United” ruling is described as permitting organizations (corporations and other associations) the same freedom of speech rights as individuals.  Further, it allows money to be the conduit and means through which that right can be exercised.  In short, the language of the ruling gives any person, organization or corporation the freedom to influence (and effectively buy) the vote in an election – or the action of elected officials.  And, more importantly, they are guaranteed anonymity in the process.

The term “Dark Money” refers to the expenditure of large amounts of money for political purposes by corporations, business associations, organizations, unions and wealthy individuals who refuse to be publically identified. Citizens United effectively erased limits on the amounts corporations, unions and other organizations can directly spend to support for, or against, candidates.  This is done through purchase of advertising, use of media, and distribution of literature. The court ruled in favor of a system of unlimited spending by outside groups acting independently of the candidates they support without transparency.  Super PACs, a type of political-action committee, are one of the results of the Citizens United ruling.  Whatever the source,Dark Money is spent with the expectation that post-election, there will be residual influence reflecting the positions and benefit of the donors.

According to the Morrison Institute, ”In the 2011-2012 cycle, $1.3 billion of the $7 billion spent on federal elections came from groups operating independently of any candidate’s committee”  (i.e.: Dark Money”). Close to half of the outside spending came from Super PACs, while much of the rest – some 46 percent of the total came from groups - principally non-profit social-welfare groups.”   The increase in expenditure of dark money use has been explosive.  Often, the money is anonymously given to a Super Pac or not for profit group.  Then, political operatives launder these undisclosed funds though complex networks and organizations, including many nonprofit corporations. Because these Super PACs and not-for profit groups are not required to disclose the source of their funds – their money is “Dark Money.” They are not required to report either the amount or source of their funding.  Frequently they disappear as quickly and easily as they were created. 

Application of “Dark Money” is not limited to elections.  How does that work?   For example:  There was an attempt to influence the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s creation of new maps for state legislative and congressional districts.  The group supporting this effort refused to reveal its donors, despite repeated requests from some commission members.  Another example was the money spent by non-profits, funded by a utility company, to influence the decision of the Corporation Commission regarding the funding rebates for solar energy installations.  It is not uncommon to establish Super PACs for specific actions to influence the decisions of government agencies as well.  American Encore, which invested $1.5 million to get Governor Ducey elected, is defending the fledgling administration and aggressively going after its critics. American Encore’s efforts aren’t tied to any specific policy.  Rather, they seem to be geared toward propping up their candidate, post-election.  Where does the money for American Encore come from?

A slightly different approach is followed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They don’t behave like most sources of Dark Money.  They are a corporate organization that drafts their agenda of laws and passes them on to legislators who shepherd them into laws. No need to go through a lobbyist to reach state legislatures anymore.  Just contact ALEC. Many legislators don’t even change the proposals handed to them by this group. They simply take the bills and bring them to the legislative floor.  Much of the ALEC legislative agenda is driven by corporations and special interest groups advocating for (or against) specific issues.  Much of the recent legislation dealing with voter registration (and eligibility) was sourced from ALEC.

In the 2013 Arizona legislative session, state Democrats proposed legislation forcing disclosure of dark money donors to nonprofits.  Their bills, however, found little traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and they were never considered for passage. By 2014, however, members of both parties have expressed support for greater disclosure.  Now it is time to “go to the voters” through a public referendum.  In campaigning for election as Secretary of State, Terry Goddard said: Dark Money is a major threat to our democracy, and I can think of no bigger issue for our next Secretary of State”. He authored a “plan to attack Dark Moneyfrom every angle – based on months of research and consultation with some of the leading state and national election law experts.”

Now, we proud citizens of Arizona have an opportunity to stand together, with Terry Goddard, to stop the influence of “Dark Money.”  We can demand an end to the flood of anonymous political contributions polluting Arizona elections.  We can demand transparency for all political funds by enactment of the following reforms:

  • Identification of the original donor of all funds that benefit or harm a political candidate; 
  • Disclosure of all political candidate contributions or expenditures that benefit or harm a candidate to be made as soon as possible after the contribution is received or  an expenditure is transacted;
  • Publication on the internet  of all political contributions or expenditures, as soon as possible after disclosure;
  • Significant penalties for failure to comply.

We can do this through the legislative referendum process.

These actions alone will not end the influx of “Dark Money”. However, in conjunction with a strengthened and expanded “Clean Elections” law, they will reduce external influence.  In his State of the Union address, President Obama said: “The secret billionaire and big business "dark money" is pulling "our politics into the gutter." We deserve to know how much corporations are spending by backing politicians who may help them get lucrative government business (paid for by tax dollars) or attacking politicians who do not.  One thing is certain. “Dark Money” will only allow the powerful and wealthy to further control our government.  Ask yourself (and your friends) this question:  “Does my vote count?  Or, do the dollars from “Dark Sources” have more influence on elections and government practices than my vote?”   My vote isn’t for sale!  You know there is nothing fair – or equitable about the current system working under the protection of “Citizens United.”  Help solve this problem NOW!  Google “Dark Money” in Arizona to better understand the danger we confront. Then join with Terry Goddard at:   http://www.vpaarizona.org/

Marvin J. Christensen

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