You wouldn’t serve food to your family or take medication without knowing the ingredients. 

So why would you condone political ads that fail to disclose their biggest financial backers?

Increasing transparency in campaign finance is one way to help voters make informed decisions in national and local elections, electoral accountability expert Daniel G. Newman said.

“Transparency is something the vast majority of voters, including Republican voters, are in favor of,” Newman, author of Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy, told Atlanta Civic Circle

Campaign finance transparency “can be implemented at the local level as well. It’s hard to argue against transparency. It’s powerful and implementable,” said Newman last week to participants in the Atlanta Civic Circle’s Democracy book club, which just finished reading Unrig.

San Francisco voters, for example, don’t have to search to find out who is financing local political campaigns, Newman said. The information is visible on television commercials, billboards, mailers, and other campaign materials. 

In 2018, San Francisco voters passed the first-ever ban on flavored tobacco products, voting 68% in favor, even though tobacco maker R.J. Reynolds spent $12 million opposing the ban, outspending its proponents by more than two to one. 

All of R. J. Reynolds’ mailers, television commercials, and billboards disclosed that they were funded by the tobacco giant because city law requires political ads to include their top donors. A poll taken shortly after the referendum found that two out of three voters said the funding information helped them make their decision about the measure, according to Unrig.

Daniel G. Newman

“It’s an important innovation because it’s easy to implement,” Newman said. “It gets broad support across the political spectrum. Why force voters to go to a government website to look up information–when it could be printed right when campaigns are spending enormous amounts of money to mail information to voters? 

“You may as well use those funds to make voters more informed,” he added.

San Francisco’s story is an innovative one, amid increased opacity in campaign financing nationwide.

Campaign financing has become a shadowy, high-dollar enterprise in the last decade, as wealthy donors, groups, and corporations pour millions of dollars into national, state, and local campaigns. The donors remain anonymous, and the public is left in the dark about who is behind the donations.

While dark money has invaded many political campaigns, it is difficult to track. Super PACS are perhaps the most well-known vehicle. Super PACs can spend unlimited money on elections, but can’t donate directly or coordinate their spending with candidates, and they must report their donors to the FEC. 

But dark money is also funneled through  501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(6) trade associations, which do not have to disclose their donors. Both are tax-exempt nonprofits that under IRS rules can engage in political campaigns and endorse candidates, as long as that is not their primary activity. 

These nonprofits can buy political ads trashing or touting a particular candidate. The ads can only be traced to the nonprofit that ultimately spent the money, so the public can’t see who initially paid to finance the ads. 

For the 2020 federal elections, over $100 million in dark money spending was reported to the FEC–but likely at least seven times that was spent anonymously via dark money groups and ad buys, according to the Brennan Center for Justice and Open Secrets. That came a decade after the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling, which sharply increased the number of politically-active super PACS and other nonprofits. 

 Super PAC spending dwarfs that of 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6) nonprofits at the national level, but the latter are rapidly gaining more influence in local politics. 

Georgia became a dark money magnet for the hotly contested 2020-2021 Senate races, ultimately won by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, while the Atlanta mayoral race last fall ushered in a new era of anonymous spending on candidates for the city’s municipal elections. In what many observers called a new development, dark money donors inundated Atlanta voters with billboards, text messages, and TV ads paid for by super PACs and anonymously funded 501(c)4s and 501(c)6 groups. 

Uncovering dark money and ridding it from campaigns is difficult, particularly at the national level, but Newman said creating campaign finance transparency laws at the local level is a corrective first step.

“That’s not as impactful as getting rid of secret money in elections,” he said. “But it’s easier to achieve. It’s often valuable to start with things that are achievable because then you build a coalition. You can go on to the next thing that may be harder, and you have more people who see that you can be successful.” 

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