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The really, really dark money in politics

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Guest opinion: Sunshine Week

The really, really dark money in politics

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Along with Super PACs, we're now hearing about Dark Money, the unlimited anonymous funds that can flow to Super PACs via nonprofit "social welfare" organizations that don't have to publicly disclose who gave them the funds.

Electioneering communications (a.k.a. issue ads) lurk in yet another dark region of the campaign finance world, where disclosure is largely nonexistent. These communications clearly promote candidates and political views but avoid the use of words like "vote for" or “vote against.” Regulated at the federal level to some degree, 31 states have NO regulations for disclosing electioneering communications that target candidates running for state office.

These 31 states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

So, how much are we talking about here? In one example, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network dug into the 2000–2010 public records available at television stations and found upward of $70 million spent on political advertising that targeted Michigan state campaigns. This spending was never disclosed, because Michigan doesn't require it.

In states that are devoid of electioneering communications disclosure, the public has no way of knowing who is spending potentially hundreds of millions to influence state elections.

That is Really Dark Money.

Diving even deeper into disclosure laws — or the lack of them — independent expenditures (those that do advocate a vote for or against a targeted candidate) reported in the states amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. The National Institute on Money in State Politics’ analysis of the 2006–2010 independent spending showed $479.3 million in expenditures in 22 states. Add to that the independent spending in the five states with no disclosure of any kind, and in 23 other states with poor disclosure, and you're likely close to the billion-dollar mark in spending by outside groups on state elections.

But we'll never know for sure. Because disclosure is, at its best, very poor, and at worst, nonexistent.

That's Really, Really Dark Money.

A few of us are shining the light on those dark corners.  We’re doing our best here at the Institute to get the states to improve their disclosure systems, and nudges from many citizens would go a long way to that end. So call your state’s disclosure agency and tell them that you want to know — in fact, that you have a right to know — how much money is being spent independently on state elections, and by whom.

Also, check out the Institute at to look at who donates to state legislators, governors, attorneys general, political parties, and ballot measures, plus independent spending data (where we could get it), lobbyist/client lists, and much more. Be prepared to find some real eye-openers.

Edwin Bender is the executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

About Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

This non-partisan, non-profit initiative is celebrated in mid-March each year to coincide with James Madison's birthday on March 16.

Though created by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why. Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.

Participants include news media, government officials at all levels, schools and universities, libraries and archives, individuals, nonprofit and civic organizations, historians and anyone with an interest in open government.

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