Arizonans deserve to know who wants to buy their votes.
But they don’t.
Under current laws, they can’t.
Political non-profits can spend on TV spots, radio ads, robocalls, mailers other schemes to try to sway voters without disclosing the source of the money.
This anonymous cash – so-called dirty money – is corrosive to a system that is based on informed voters making educated choices.
Yet secret spending is becoming more ingrained in our elections.
Dark money played big role in 2014 election
In 2014 – the last year Arizona elected a governor and slate of statewide officeholders – groups outside of the political campaigns spent $27.3 million ($12 million of it on the governor’s race).
At least 46 percent of that was dark-money spending by groups that don’t have to disclose their donors, according to reporting by The Republic.
People instinctively understand why this is wrong.
In March, a staggering 91 percent of voters in Tempe approved a measure to require political non-profits to disclose campaign spending in local races.
Politicians instinctively understand the potential benefit to them from anonymous spending.
Legislature, governor act to stop local efforts
This month, the Legislature passed and Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that prohibits cities from enforcing campaign rules just like the ones Tempe voters overwhelmingly approved.
The argument against disclosure is based on the idea that organizations with a broad donor base should be able to protect the privacy rights of members.
It’s a weak argument because individuals who donate more than $50 are already required to identify themselves.
Pooling money into a group that can keep campaign donors secret invites corruption.
Voters deserve to know who is spending to get a candidate elected. Why? Because in the real world, money comes with strings attached.
Informed public outweighs privacy argument
A candidate’s donor list is a more likely predictor of post-election behavior than a candidate’s stump speech.
That’s why voters need to see a complete list of donors.
It is why the importance of an informed electorate outweighs any arguments in favor of maintaining a cloak of invisibility for non-profit groups that are currently exempt from disclosure rules.
Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard says dark money should be called "dirty money” because “it is polluting the system."
He is pushing an initiative called Outlaw Dirty Money, which would amend the state Constitution to give the people of Arizona the right to know who is trying to sway state elections.
Amending the state Constitution is a major step. It should not be done lightly.
Establish basic right for voters to know
But in this case, it would be done to establish a basic right for people to know who is giving money to influence elections. That is a necessary change that responds to a well-known problem.
The amendment doesn’t limit contributions. It doesn’t tell anyone not to use their money to exert political influence.
It simply requires transparency.
Instead of hiding behind innocuous-sounding titles like Citizens for Beautiful Sunrises, this amendment would require the names of donors.
According to the group’s website, the amendment "requires public disclosure of all contributors who give $2,500 or more to influence elections in a two-year election cycle, regardless of whether their contributions passed through any intermediaries."
Disclosure needs a statewide voter mandate
The value of transparency was clear to more than 90 percent of Tempe voters. The reaction of lawmakers and Ducey in retroactively preempting the will of those voters shows why this kind of disclosure won’t happen unless voters mandate it statewide.
But voters won’t get a chance to vote on the Outlaw Dirty Money initiative unless its supporters collect enough signatures by July to qualify for the ballot, and Goddard says they need more volunteers to help gather the target of 300,000 signatures.
“This single reform will allow voters to take control of our elections back from the faceless dirty money forces,” he said. “But, it won’t get on the November ballot unless a lot more good people stand up and do their part.”
Those who think transparency in campaign financing is a good idea should check out outlawdirtymoney.com
Anonymity and secrecy in elections are antithetical to our form of government. Why? Because you can’t make an informed choice unless you have information.
Dispatches from the Urban Resistance, from Tempe to Nashville and beyond.
Nine of 10 Tempe voters called for lifting the curtain on secretive money in city elections, but lawmakers this week passed a bill that would stop that. The measure now goes to the governor, who was a beneficiary of 'dark money' spending in his 2014 run for office.
"Dark money" refers to political non-profits that spend money on political ads, robocalls and other efforts to sway elections without any requirement to disclose donors. The Tempe measure would force the organizations to unveil financial backers if spending exceeds $1,000 in municipal elections. Phoenix is beginning to explore a similar measure.
But House Bill 2153 would prohibit cities from enforcing such campaign-finance reforms.
Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, the bill's sponsor, said the landslide passage of the Tempe measure on March 13 didn't deter him.
"Lots of people in my district want the right to remain anonymous and that's who I'm here to represent," Leach said.
Leach and others say anonymity protects donors who fear retaliation for criticizing a politician.
Supporters of disclosure say voters should know who is spending to influence their vote.
"The legislation will stymie efforts to shine a light on untraceable campaign spending by wealthy individuals, corporations and interest groups occurring in elections at all levels of government," Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego said.
Some say the issue is likely to land in the courts.
What the bill does
The bill passed by the Senate on 16-13 vote that followed party lines with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
The bill does four things:
- Non-profits in "good standing" with the IRS would not have to register as a political-action committee or PAC.
- Non-profits would not have to disclose donor information.
- Non-profits in good standing would not have to respond to audits, subpoenas or produce evidence regarding a "potential political campaign finance violation."
- Remove the requirement that a non-profit prove they are organized for the sole purpose of influencing an election.
Laurie Roberts: Nine out of 10 Tempe voters said no to dark money. But will Arizona's leaders listen?
An astounding 91 percent of Tempe voters on Tuesday approved a charter amendment that would require disclosure of dark money in city elections.
They don’t like the dark money that increasing is buying Arizona’s elections – the secret interests that state leaders have bent over backwards to protect.
Are you listening, Gov. Doug Ducey?
Did you hear them, Arizona Legislature?
Meanwhile, Phoenix is working on a similar proposal.
And a bipartisan group called Outlaw Dirty Money is gathering signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot.
Lawmakers Wednesday approved a bill to nullify a clean-energy ballot measure that's barely gotten off the ground in Arizona by making the penalty for utilities violating such a rule as little as $100.
Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City introduced the "striker" amendment supported by fellow Republicans. Such amendments are a tactic used to introduce a new issue late in the session, often skipping part of the public-hearing process. It passed a committee vote 4-3 on party lines.
Critics contend the amended House Bill 2005 undermines not only the current Renewable Energy Standard, where state utility regulators at the Corporation Commission require utilities to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025, but also a ballot initiative recently filed in Arizona aiming for 50 percent renewables.
Voters give strong 'yes' to 3 ballot measures
Early unofficial results show Tempe voters overwhelmingly approved three ballot measures, with a proposal to add transparency to campaign spending getting the most support.
A measure to make Papago Park a preserve was the next most popular measure, followed by a budget-related request. Here's a look at each:
Campaign-finance reform: The proposed charter amendment would require the disclosure of the origins of so-called "dark money" used in Tempe. Any person or entity making an independent expenditure of more than $1,000 would have to disclose original and intermediary sources of the funding. Some praise the idea for increasing transparency while others raised concerns the state could push back because the local measure would go further than state law.
Amid all of the anti-voter legislation being considered by the Legislature this session, one measure – a full-scale assault on Clean Elections and accountable government – has garnered surprisingly little attention. HCR 2007, sponsored by Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, and spearheaded by lobbyists for the Free Enterprise Club, has already cleared the House and is set for Senate consideration. HCR 2007 is a misleading proposal designed to confuse voters and undermine Arizona’s popular anti-corruption law to the benefit of wealthy special interests.
Like Senate President Steve Yarbrough’s redistricting measure (SCR 1034), HCR 2007 is being presented as something other than what it truly is. Despite the false claims of proponents, HCR 2007 eliminates the Clean Elections Commission’s independent, nonpartisan authority to administer and enforce the law, and instead gives final say over Clean Elections rules to the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council (GRRC), a hyper-partisan body stacked with corporate elites and professional political operatives, including Free Enterprise Club founder Steve Voeller.
If HCR 2007 passes, Voeller, whose organization has been trying to dismantle Clean Elections since its inception, will be a critical figure in deciding how the program operates. That would be a dramatic step backward from the nonpartisan Clean Elections Commission we have now and will all but ensure the scales are tipped in favor of special interests.
Equally misleading, the measure would nearly double the amount of money individuals can donate to clean candidates, while essentially capping the value of no-strings-attached money candidates can receive through the clean funding program. The bill’s supporters accomplish this by radically altering the formula for setting the spending and contribution limits applicable to clean candidates, changing the statutory formula from routine inflation adjustments to a flat $100 increase each election cycle. This provision has received little attention in the House because it has been misleadingly deemed just a “technical” change. In truth, the provision will over time serve to empower wealthy donors and well-connected politicians at the expense of everyday voters and candidates.
As cover for this quiet gutting of Clean Elections, proponents are pushing a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory designed to gin up partisan passions. Like the Clean Elections Commission, Arizona Advocacy Network is nonpartisan and seeks only to protect the Clean Elections system that has served voters so well for 20 years. We are not in the business of promoting any political party’s interests. That is why we oppose HCR 2007.
If there’s one thing virtually all voters agree on, it’s that money has too much influence on our politics while people’s voices have too little. HCR 2007 is just another step toward empowering the wealthiest interests to control our state. As it heads to the Senate, legislators should stop and think about whether they want to side with the voters, or join a stealth assault on this popular anti-corruption program.
— Joel Edman is executive director of Arizona Advocacy Network.
To the Editor:
At the 2010 State of the Union address, then President Barack Obama stood in front of the Supreme Court justices and chastised them for allowing unlimited and untraceable dark money from trans national corporations, foreigners and governments to influence our elections with their 5-4 Citizens United decision.
Those five justices form the Corporatist Wing of SCOTUS. Since then, dark money super PACs flood our body politic with unlimited and untraceable money to elect politicians who will do their bidding, enact legislation to their benefit, and foment propaganda, lies and misinformation that dupes Americans.
Dark money groups are brilliantly uncovered in Jane Mayer’s book, “Dark Money.” Greedy billionaires led by the Koch brothers, Mercers and Adelsons have literally bought and paid for an entire political party and use “legalized bribery” to corrupt the system to their benefit. They have figured out the best investment in America is to buy a politician.
The latest atrocity came in the form of a $500 million payoff from the Koch brothers to Speaker Paul Ryan (Koch’s haul is $2 billion a year in tax cuts, a 400 percent return on investment) for pushing through the GOP tax cuts for the rich, of which 84 percent of the $1.5 trillion tax cuts go to the top 1 percent and will be paid for by our children and grandchildren in the form of cuts to education, infrastructure, science, research and our Medicare and Social Security.
The Koch brothers have allocated a $20 million advertising budget propaganda campaign to dupe America into believing in the virtues of tax cuts for the rich and corporations.
They have begun their PR campaign of throwing a $1,000 bone to a few middle-class workers while CEOs and billionaires feed like pigs at the trough of trillion-dollar tax cuts and the added profits from the deregulation of our environmental, consumer, banking and labor protections.
We have a choice. We can vote out the politicians who literally are owned by the 1 percent and get the corrupting influence of money out of politics ... or let the billionaires overturn and overrun our democracy.
Please choose wisely!
Last month, Joe Albanese, a research fellow at the Institute for Free Speech, wrote in these pages that House Bill 1524 is an attack on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, i.e. free speech (Monitor Forum, Feb. 16).
I thank Albanese for bringing HB 1524 to the public’s attention. In its own flawed way it addresses two issues that undermine our democracy and alarm a great majority of voters: big money in politics and gerrymandering.
Regarding big money in politics, supporters of this bill seek to undo the effect of the activist U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which declared corporations to be people and money to be free speech. The result of this decision has been the unleashing of torrents of money into politics with little transparency or accountability. It has given wealthy interests a bullhorn to exercise their “free speech” (often without us knowing who is “speaking”) while the rest of us have been reduced to whispers.
Gerrymandering refers to the redrawing of voting district boundaries (sometimes in contorted ways) for political advantage by the party that carries the vote in a census year (ends in a zero). The idea is to create as many uncontestable districts as possible for your party. With advances in technology this can now be done with surgical precision, as you have heard in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It allows politicians to choose voters rather than voters to choose politicians.
Albanese’s contention is that the Citizens United decision is, in fact, correct – that money in politics is free speech and therefore should be protected. People and organizations should have the right to support candidates of their choosing and advocate for policies through lobbying their representatives. Efforts to control this flow of money would undermine – or even threaten – citizen participation in the political process.
The moment one equates money with free speech, however, shouldn’t it meet the standards of free speech in the public square? Doesn’t free speech require that we know who the speaker is? This is called transparency and accountability. If supporting a candidate with money is free speech, then shouldn’t we know who the donors are? Shouldn’t we know who’s behind the proliferation of ads during the campaign season as well – if money spent this way is free speech?
The American people need to know who’s “talking.” Sometimes it’s not easy to find out: even corporate shareholders have found it difficult to get an accounting from their companies on their political spending and lobbying.
This is especially true with big donors because, at the very least, they can expect to have the ear of the candidate receiving the donation. At worst they can influence votes, the writing of bills and how those bills proceed. How can we establish that a quid pro quo has occurred – i.e. corruption – if there is no transparency?
Freedom of speech is a right not without consequences or responsibilities. In the public square, others have the right to disagree with you, criticize you and question your motives. We have a free press to investigate truthfulness and corruption and a government to assure that laws are not broken. It’s the public’s job, in turn, to hold the press and government accountable.
Then there’s dark money, “a term that describes funds given to nonprofit organizations – primarily 501(c)(4) (social welfare) and 501(c)(6) (trade association) groups – that can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions, and spend funds to influence elections, but are not required to disclose their donors” (Wikipedia).
In turn, these nonprofits can give their money to Super PACs, which can spend it without disclosing those nonprofit donors. This kind of spending, largely for ads on social media, radio and TV as well as mailers, has exploded over the last two election cycles. The Russians, we have learned, have exploited this venue, which opens the possibility of even darker money being spent by American interests without our knowledge. Google, Twitter and Facebook clearly don’t pay close attention to their own platforms.
Who can doubt that the tax reform bill wasn’t a big, wet kiss to wealthy interests who helped elect the candidates of their choosing. Koch Industries, for instance, will be receiving a million dollars in the tax windfall; the Koch brothers have already pledged $400,000 to make sure those votes are rewarded (though they would use different wording).
Albanese also says that corruption is hard to define and difficult to prove. But we know what it looks like.
In 2008 it was clear that Wall Street had defrauded the American people on a massive scale, precipitating a huge recession. Nobody of substance was ever convicted of a crime, and the fines that were levied were trivial compared to Wall Street wealth. Profits were privatized, and losses socialized; Wall Street was bailed out, and Main Street left to itself.
Ten years later the protections put in place are being rolled back, and regulations are being swept away. Banks are still too big to fail. One random factoid: In the past year, members of the House Financial Services Committee received $10 million in contributions from banks, financial institutions, insurance companies and accounting firms – the tip of the iceberg.
The NRA funds many campaigns of candidates who support their pro-gun agenda and has a huge war chest to work against candidates who don’t. When a Sandy Hook, Las Vegas or Florida happens, it flexes its muscles, engages its members and strangles gun control legislation. Every candidate knows how powerful an effect their money has on elections. The result: inaction.
Is there an unhealthy imbalance of money in politics?
1) In 2012, fewer than 200 Americans – a miniscule 0.000063 percent of the population – contributed 80 percent of all Super PAC donations.
2) Since Citizens United, corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on political attack ads at the local, state and national levels.
3) Wall Street lobbyists spent $1 million in one day to try to keep the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from getting off the ground. The fiduciary rule has yet to be put into effect.
4) In 2014, the Koch Brothers spent more money in one state, North Carolina, than all Democratic groups combined.
The perception on Main Street is that wealthy interests “own” our government – government by the rich for the rich – and with good reason. There are currently several versions of amendments to the U.S. Constitution to undo the damage done by Citizens United, which severely restricts the government’s ability to regulate money as a corrupting influence in politics. Wealthy interest will do anything to stop them. Republican leadership in both Houses obviously like the status quo because they will not move on any of these amendments – ditto on the state level – unless we the people pressure them to.
Until that happens, campaign finance reform is DOA. Have you surrendered your country to wealthy interests and to partisan politics (e.g gerrymandering)? We can start to take it back by asking our candidates about their inaction and then send a message in November.
(Allan MacDonald lives in New London.)