What Is Dark Money?

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/7578235

Author bio: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Alison_M_Gunn,_Ph.D.

Republished with permission from the author

Americans are in the dark when it comes to ‘dark’ money, and our collective confusion—amounting to ignorance—won’t help in the months and years ahead while we watch stakes rise in each new election cycle.

Illumination into the nature of dark money won’t come from analyzing the innocuous (and often misleading) names of the groups formed under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, the status ascribed to tax-exempt social welfare groups permitting anonymity for donors. The key to this tax-exempt status, however, is that any group claiming its protection must not exist ‘solely for political reasons’ (Opensecrets.org).

Disagreement with ‘dark’ money—also known as ‘outside’ or third-party money—comes from politicians who have felt the sting of attacks from unidentified, ‘obscure’ nonprofits who, currently, do not have to disclose sources of funding, or the amounts they’ve raised.

Positive use of so-called ‘dark’ money occurs when politicians who lack funds receive an influx of cash from outside sources. Political aspirants who can’t afford to counter big money are at a disadvantage; outside, or ‘dark’ money levels the playing field for many potentially worthy candidates whose message might not otherwise be heard. It’s also thought to be a protective measure for those who would otherwise not engage politically, due to the wish to maintain privacy, or protect their reputation from public scrutiny.

Uses and Abuses of Dark Money

Does ‘dark’ money always accomplish its objectives? Apparently not. Montana became the state to watch for trends during the 2012 election season. Sixty-four outside groups poured $21 million into the Montana Senate election, almost as much as the candidates themselves. Party committees spent another $8.9 million on the race. More television commercials ran in the Montana race between June and the election than in any other Senate contest nationwide (Salon.com) saturating the airwaves with someone’s message, but whose?

The incumbent, Democrat Jon Tester, won, in spite of dark money contributions made in the eleventh hour of the race supporting one of his opponents, third-party Libertarian Dan Cox. Support for Cox seems to have skewed the outcome, since Tester’s numbers show his strongest opponent was his Republican counterpart, State Representative Denny Rehberg. Tester recently told the Montana State legislature: “Dark money needs to be reined in at both the federal and state level. Outside groups, on both sides, spent tens of millions of dollars with little transparency and no accountability” (Montana Public Media).

In response, however, Republicans in Montana are now calling to increase spending to fight what some see as the insidious effects of third-party dark money. Stating that the advantage to this proposal comes from insisting on public disclosure, Representative Scott Reichner wants candidates to be able to “compete with anonymous third-party spending” (Billings Gazette). Reichner’s bill goes before the House State Administration Committee, but it already faces severe opposition in a state renowned for its efforts to discourage corruption.

Montana, The New Battleground State For Dark Money Issues

It is poignant that Montana is on the frontline of this controversy, since “The Treasure State,” nicknamed for its rich mineral reserves, has a one hundred year history of fighting political corruption. Montana even went so far as to resist the Supreme Court-sanctioned Citizens United ruling of 2010, having banned all corporate political spending in 1912, after Williams Andrews Clark, one of the Copper Kings who gave the “Treasure State” its nickname, infamously won his election to the U. S. Senate through blatant bribery (Montana Law Review, “Once Upon A Time In The West: Citizens United, Caperton, and the War of the Copper Kings”).

However, the U. S. Supreme Court recently overruled Montana’s strict campaign finance laws, reinforcing the protected role of corporations, further fomenting a divide between those who would like to limit the influence of special interest groups, and those who are willing to spend increasing sums to ensure their message is heard.

Shouldn’t this access be the right of any candidate for office in America? And shouldn’t the individual be free to make up his or her own mind which candidate they will support financially? In the controversial Citizens United decision, the U. S. Supreme Court made it clear that ‘experimental uses’ of free speech inspired by the First Amendment had moral supremacy over concerns that corporate political speech might be misused or even lead to corruption. As Justice Kennedy said in his Citizens United ‘Opinion,’ “The Government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”

What’s Hiding Behind Dark Money

In spite of the overarching moral supremacy of the First Amendment, what’s at issue for the voter when it comes to the uses of ‘dark money’ is the definition of ‘independent expenditure,’ and whether or not an ‘independent expenditure’ is as corrupting as a ‘direct contribution’. Further, the sole dissenter to the Supreme Court’s decision overruling Montana’s campaign finance law, Judge Stephen Breyer, stated in response to the controversial decision, that independent expenditures have the potential to be as corrupting as direct contributions.

The distinction between ‘direct contribution’ and ‘independent expenditure’ and what makes one more potentially ‘corrupting’ has roots in attempts to prevent unbridled excess in political expenditure. “Before the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), federal law prohibited—and still does prohibit—corporations and unions from using general treasury funds to make direct contributions to candidates or independent expenditures that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, through any form of media, in connection with certain qualified federal elections” (Justice Kennedy: ‘Opinion’, Citizens United, Appellant v. Federal Election Commission, Jan. 21, 2010).

The loser in the race to Election Day will be the voter. If the 2012 Montana Senate race is any indication, candidates will be forced to raise money earlier and earlier, if they are to have a chance against outside groups. Bombarding voters with advertising, disingenuous tactics and mailings from groups hiding behind protected ‘social welfare’ status will only serve to further erode faith in the democratic process. Laws designed to promote secrecy do a disservice to democracy, at the same time they protect special interest groups. Timely and adequate disclosure is essential if voters are to make informed decisions and remain civically engaged.

Remaining unaware of dark money, its uses and purposes, is not the answer. Demand to know who and what you’re buying into when you vote for something or someone, because it is currently in the interests of political action groups to keep you in the dark. Voters and voting will lose out, as will American democracy. This should matter to you, since it’s dangerous to be apathetic.

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