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Pitch Black Politics: How Federal Election Commission Inaction Led to Dark Money Domination

February 7, 2022

By Jessica Tyrrell*

Disclosure is a demanded concept in the United States. Food manufacturers are required to disclose ingredients to consumers; pharmaceutical companies are required to disclose side effects to patients; and car companies are required to disclose safety rankings to buyers. Disclosure is even more prominent in the finance world, as publicly traded companies annually disclose financial results so that investors can make informed decisions. In most aspects of American society, disclosure is commonplace and is not a partisan issue. So why are American voters deprived of the opportunity to make informed decisions in federal elections? After the most expensive, and likely the most contentious election cycle in American history, the need for an answer to this question is more apparent than ever.

Accountability and transparency are the hallmarks of the American political system, according to the politicians who want you to believe they are both accountable to and transparent with the American public. But really, what lies behind our elections is a tangled web of contributions intended to confuse and affirmatively mislead American voters. Federal campaign finance disclosure laws attempt to deter corruption in the political process, but flimsy statutory language paves a clear path for dark money donors. Money is considered “dark” when it comes from an undisclosed source.

Donor anonymity directly impacts the average voter’s ability to remain informed and vote competently. But what does it mean to vote competently? To some, competent voting is just casting a vote. To others, the value of the American vote can only be realized when the voter is able to “place candidates . . . on the political spectrum and gauge which interests candidates will be most responsive to.” The 2020 Election cycle saw record voter turnout numbers, with participation from over two-thirds of the voting-eligible population. This turnout is remarkable, but we must question whether the voting population had the opportunity to understand and effectuate its beliefs in casting its vote. This questioning should first be directed at the credibility of advertisements. This election cycle, more than ever before, candidates and their donors (such as super PACs) poured billions of dollars into advertisements on television and social media. But how are voters to discern between reputable sources intended to spread valuable information and those aiming to confuse and mislead uninformed voters? Below, I have outlined an example of an affirmatively misleading advertisement funded by a Republican super PAC. Do not be mistaken, however. Advertisements like this were run by both parties.

In the months leading up to the election, America First Policies, Inc., a nonprofit organization backed by Republican megadonors, donated over $19 million to America First Action, Inc., one of the most active super PACs in the 2020 election. America First Action spent over $94 million opposing Democratic nominee Joe Biden, at least $19 million of which was untraceable. Just five days before the 2020 election, America First Action released an advertisement titled “Blatant Lie. ” This advertisement attempted to link Biden to his son’s indiscretions in China by playing a news clip of a “Biden Family Business Partner” recounting an off-the-books meeting with Biden at a bar. To the viewers of this advertisement, Democratic nominee Joe Biden is a dishonest man. The public is left without any avenue to substantiate this claim as the donors that funded the advertisement facelessly push their political views.

Disclosure of America First Action and America First Policies’ donors would allow the average voter to discern the credibility of the advertisement and, thus, the legitimacy of the candidate’s message. Disclosure might also force a large donor to think twice about his or her funding in the first place. In short, disclosure is a self-regulating mechanism against false information because “reputable” donors might be less willing to bolster a political candidate at the expense of their personal reputation.

Aside from controlling voters through misleading messages, undisclosed donations also place our elected officials in the pockets of those who fund their campaigns. Stewardship is one of the most effective tools for both retention and campaign growth in all forms of fundraising. Stewardship far surpasses a simple thank you to donors and encourages campaign beneficiaries to treat donors as their partners. Now, picture this within the context of a political campaign. Just as the largest donors to a non-profit have great influence on the goals and direction of the organization, the largest donors to a political campaign have the same potential influence. In short, large donors gain political control without any accountability to the American public.

Unfortunately, thanks to FEC inaction, dark money is all too prevalent in the current election campaign finance system. As evidenced, the effects are widely felt by the American public, dark money’s greatest victim. Dark money contributions not only shatter transparency in the electoral process, but also deprive voters of the opportunity to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. The danger of pitch-black politics has been recognized time and time again, but a viable solution has yet to emerge. The current FEC regulations surrounding independent expenditure donor disclosure to super PACs do not allow voters to make informed decisions when casting their votes, nor do they allow voters to hold their elected officials accountable to the public. Anonymity has no place in our democracy.

Sourcing on this blog post has not been reliance checked and represents viewpoints of the author only.