Study: Dark Money Invading State and Local Politics

A shroud of secrecy is falling over state and local races across the country, as it becomes harder and harder to identify the true sources of campaign contributions. That’s the conclusion of a first-of-its-kind analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, which released its report on secret campaign spending late last month.

The New York-based nonprofit recently looked at spending by outside groups in six states, including California, between 2006 and 2014. They found that instances where donors could be clearly identified had dropped from 76 percent to 29 percent. In 2014, only 29 cents of every $1 of independent political expenditures could be easily traced back to its original donor.

The problem lies with so-called dark money and, increasingly, what the researchers have termed “gray money.” The former comes from nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors; the latter denotes spending by state super PACs that report other PACs as donors, making it extremely difficult to identify the original source.

Both dark and gray money are increasingly being funneled into state and local elections where the contributors can get a greater bang for their buck. The phenomenon is troubling, the researchers note, because secret spending often originates from donors with a personal, economic stake in local elections.

“The problem is not that dark money will flood every state and local election or even most,” the Brennan Center report said. “It’s that dark money is most likely to turn up where the stakes are particularly valuable, in amounts that could make all the difference in persuading voters.”

The study’s authors are pointing the finger at the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which struck down restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions. In addition to paving the way for the creation of super PACs, the researchers say it led to increasing contributions to nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors.

The federal government has done little to increase disclosure requirements, but state and local governments can make the difference. California, which had the most outside spending of the six states, saw a low amount of dark money thanks to strict transparency laws.

“There is more realistic hope of change at the state and certainly city level,” said Chisun Lee, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center and one of the report’s authors. She and the other researchers have issued a series of recommendations to increase donor transparency, including requiring that donors be made public prior to elections.

Read more about the study here.


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