Thursday, March 17, 2016

Political spending of 'dark money' has increased with names of donors legally kept secret

Political spending from donors whose names candidates are not required to disclose—often referred to as dark money—has been on the rise and is expected to explode during this year's presidential election, reports Mary Spicuzza of the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal and Jeremy White of The Sacramento Bee in a story written for Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press. Sunshine Week runs through Saturday.

An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics found that "more than $308 million in dark money was spent during the 2012 election cycle," Spicuzza and White write. "Of that, about 86 percent was spent by conservative groups, 11 percent by liberal groups and 3 percent by others."

"States can take action to stem the tide at the local level, but few have," Spicuzza and White write. "Congress could require more disclosure about who is financing campaigns, but it has made no move to do so." Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote in an opinion in favor of disclosing petition signatures, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed."

"The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has ruled in favor of public disclosure of campaign contributions, even in its earth-moving Citizens United decision," Spicuzza and White write. "The 2010 ruling found that political spending is protected under the First Amendment and said that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities. It effectively wiped out key campaign finance regulations that had been in effect for decades. But it also upheld disclosure requirements. That and other Supreme Court decisions have resulted in unprecedented amounts of money pouring into elections. Because Congress has not acted to require further disclosure, the old limits are gone, and new rules have not been passed to take their place, leaving citizens more in the dark than ever about whether elected officials are working for them or for special interests behind their campaigns."

"Groups that advocate for more transparency say the federal stalemate has driven reform efforts to the local level in some states, where they see greater opportunity to push for change," Spicuzza and White write. "Efforts to change state disclosure laws are not just a function of opportunity, advocates say. They also are a necessity, given a state-level influx of dark money paralleling the federal flood. But there’s a limit to what states can do, since they don’t have oversight of spending on federal races—such as presidential and Congressional contests, which are consistently the costliest elections."

Some people cite safety concerns for keeping donor names secret, Spicuzza and White write. James Bopp, Jr., a conservative attorney based in Indiana, "said he supports transparency for public officials, but that it’s another matter when people obtain and use information about donors to 'punish them and harass them.'" He told  Spicuzza and White, “It’s a completely different agenda, and what it does is turn the First Amendment on its head."

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