Dark money threatens our elections

Dark money threatens our elections
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The prevalence of dark money in our elections — political spending where the source of the funding is unknown and not required to be disclosed — has played an increasingly problematic role in recent years. Although super PACs are required to publicly disclose their donors, 501(c)(4) groups and other nonprofit organizations are not. Many well-known organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club are classified as 501(c)(4) organizations under the U.S. tax code.

However, 501(c)(4) organizations can then spend an unlimited amount in elections, or even donate to super PACs, which are only required to disclose the name of the 501(c)(4) group, not the underlying source of the donation. This enables wealthy, or even foreign, donors to keep their identities secret while still spending large sums of money in elections.

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Due to the high political stakes, it is not surprising that competitive races attract more dark money than most. In some critical and competitive 2016 Senate races, spending on outside advertising was larger than the amount candidates spent themselves. Additionally, dark money that is spent far enough before the election is never reported to the Federal Election Commission, so it is unknown how much dark money is actually being spent to influence our elections.

The impact of undisclosed spending on our elections is brought to light in a new documentary. “Dark Money” focuses on the fight in Montana to preserve the state’s autonomy from secret outside influence on its politics. The documentary follows a local journalist who skillfully shows how the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United and subsequent decisions created a crisis of dark money spending in Montana.

Prior to Citizens United, Montana had robust campaign finance laws, which included a 1912 ban on corporate money being spent in elections. However, after Citizens United and a subsequent Supreme Court decision that struck down the state’s Corrupt Practices Act, there was an almost immediate increase in corporate spending, including anonymous spending from outside Montana in the state’s elections. The film interviews citizens concerned by this trend and who express regret that the state’s mechanism to deter corruption has been undermined.

“Dark Money” not only highlights specific campaign finance issues in Montana, but the film shines light on a nationwide problem as well. This important documentary about our elections won the Sundance Institute and Amazon Studios Producers Award, and will be released in New York tomorrow and will continue to roll out across the country this summer.

As the country is forced to deal with the impact of dark money in our elections, what can actually be done about it? We can look, again, to Montana to find examples being made to increase transparency. Montana’s governor, Steve Bullock, signed an executive order last month that will provide greater transparency of political spending in the bidding process for corporations seeking to contract with the state.

The Campaign Legal Center is fighting back in the courts by supporting Montana’s ability to police its own elections in Lair v. Motl, filing a brief in the case to defend the state’s contribution limits. More broadly, contribution limits set by states are a necessary tool to combat improper influence in elections from interests that seek to sway elections to their benefit. We are engaged in this kind of work around the country because transparency in election spending protects our democracy.

Trevor Potter (@TheTrevorPotter) is president of the Campaign Legal Center and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.