Total spending on the 2012 presidential race eclipsed $4 billion. Next year’s elections likely will cost even more.
But traditional, federally regulated campaigns won’t spend all of that money. Much of that will fall instead to “independent” committees with fewer limits on what and how they raise and spend.
This so-called “dark money” is loosely regulated and harder to track than traditional campaign donations. Much comes through secretive groups that form to “educate” voters on issues.
The real purpose of these groups, often run by former aides or supporters of a candidate, is typically to advance the election of that candidate. The design lets groups skirt disclosure laws.
Taking things another step down this road, the team behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush reportedly plans to hand over to outside groups such traditional campaign staples as political advertising and get-out-the-vote data mining.
Other candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton among them, are rushing to fund the next generation of super PACs and similar committees.
Yet we are to believe a presidential campaign will have no control over these surrogates or their decisions.
Much of this anonymity problem could be solved with adjustments to federal and state campaign laws. Lawmakers could start by reading the words of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in the Citizens United decision that opened the financial floodgates.
The conservative jurist argued that money and the free speech it affords are part of politics, but that lawmakers could require disclosure of who is donating to what group, who is behind which advertisement.
“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed, ” Scalia wrote.
In the “dark money” era of politics, disclosure should be the first aim of any reform.
In 2012, many of these groups bombarded voters with negative advertising and were able to do so without revealing donors or putting their favored candidates at risk of any backlash. That’s bad for democracy.
Proponents of unregulated, unlimited campaign donations knew their day would come once the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United. The decision eroded traditional campaign finance structures, especially the impact of federal limits that still restrict individual donors to giving $2,700 per candidate, per race in federal primary and general elections.
Candidates with nothing to hide won’t worry about voters learning who is supporting them. Donors who want to help determine our next leaders should be willing to say so in public.
Laws requiring such disclosure are good for democracy. They help voters learn more about candidates before casting a ballot.