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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

How Citizens Can Strike Back Against Dark Money

States CAN act to take the money out of politics


People buy influence. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bribing someone or even engaging in a quid pro quo. It’s old as human history. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which opened the floodgates to unchecked levels of political donations by corporations and the wealthy, perverted the course of democracy.

If enough large cities or states take up similar measures, then it begins to draw a net around those wealthy people and corporations trying to secretly influence politics. 

In the years since all restraints on secretive money influencing politics were effectively turned off. The rich and powerful can now channel fortunes into supporting campaigns, getting far more attention than even residents of an elected official’s constituency would. And it could all happen behind closed doors because of so-called dark money.

Politicians would be much more responsive to their constituents if these dark money donors had to show their game face to the world instead of surreptitiously subverting the public’s health, fortunes, and wellbeing.

But here’s good news: a workable strategy that can rip the masks from the faces of would-be oligarchs and force their deeds into the sunlight, the best disinfectant. Change for the better has already begun to work without the help or hindrance of Congress.

Clever strategy

A clever strategy developed in Maine is now spreading. It doesn’t add contribution limits. Instead, it creates an incentive for the wealthy to give less. PACs and Super PACs, two major banes of political transparency, often use Maine as a way to test marketing and strategies. However, the Pine Tree State requires groups like political ads, to disclose their three largest donors. in all their communications

The amount of cash-seeking influence is stunning. In the immediate decade after that terrible court decision, the top ten donors and spouses shoveled $1.2 billion directly into federal elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Independent groups added another $4.5 billion. Anonymous donors contributed $960 million of that.

There is a noble and understandable tradition of anonymous political speech. Some people undertake great risks to speak their mind. However, billionaires and massive corporations? They have the power to protect themselves. They seek dark shadows to avoid the inconvenience of people knowing who they are, what they care about, and their influence over elected officials.

A conservative Supreme Court majority in 2010 buried the chance of getting transparency and accountability, with high court subsequent decisions furthering the anything-goes atmosphere.

Bipartisan addiction

Both sides of the conventional political aisle are addicted to the flow of campaign cash that helps keep them in office. Few in office are interested in fundamental change to a system that benefits them. And, of course, they are risk-averse and fear the unknowns of changing the system.

Some wealthy people might not care what others say. At least the public knows what they’re behind. However, for those that do, this becomes a disincentive. They don’t want the publicity and so must avoid giving sums that could land them in the top three of the list, putting them in the public eye.

The concept is spreading.

San Francisco passed a local ballot measure in 2019 requiring that political ads display funding, including the top three donors to the election committee running the ad and the top two donors of any secondary election committee that donated to the originating group.

There is an ongoing legal challenge, according to Legal Newsline. Still, a federal district court refused to issue a temporary restraining order that would keep the measure from taking effect, as Courthouse News reported earlier in June.

Maybe the challenge will be successful and possibly not. But there are two critical aspects of what Maine and San Francisco have done.

First, if enough large cities or states take similar measures, it begins to draw a net around wealthy people and corporations trying to influence politics secretly. At some point, PACs, Super PACs, and other groups can’t avoid the spotlight.

Contact your state and federal lawmakers to demand they adopt a law like Maine’s to reveal the biggest donors. You can learn the names of your state and federal lawmakers and how to contact them here. 

Even more important, though, are attempts to do what a panicked Congress and unethically packed Supreme Court won’t do: address dark money swaying political decisions. Eventually, citizens working together can find cracks in the campaign finance system and keep adding pressure until something gives way. This is precisely what democracy needs in this country now—added pressure so that campaign finance and our political system can work for all of us, not as a gamed system driven by the demands of the greedy among the wealthy.

Erik Sherman is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.