Table of Contents
What is Dark Money?
With the landmark ruling of Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court, regulations on campaign financing loosened considerably. Watchdogs, such as the Sunlight Foundation, had already raised concerns about something called “dark money” before the Supreme Court issued its ruling.
Dark money refers to anonymous contributions used to influence political outcomes, especially elections. While the sources of most political contributions must be disclosed under campaign finance laws, certain types of organizations do not have any legal obligation to do so.
These organizations include:
- Politically active nonprofits such as 501(c)(4)s do not have to disclose the identities of donors even if contributions go to influencing elections. Those that opt not to report their funding sources would be considered dark money organizations
- Nonprofits, individuals, and corporations can also provide dark money by donating to super PACs through shell companies. Super PACs do not have any limits on how much contributions they can receive, but the identity of all donors must be disclosed. Hence, the use of shell companies to conceal the true or original source of the money. While Super PACs cannot donate directly to a specific party or candidate, they can instead finance political advertisements, fundraisers, and the like.
According to cross-partisan political reform Issue One, nearly $1 billion in election-related expenditures alone had been spent from the 2010 Citizens United ruling to September 2019. However, as dark money by definition entails secrecy, accurately estimating donations and spending can often prove difficult.
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The Center for Responsive Politics, a research group dedicated to tracking money in U.S. politics, estimates that “more than $350 million in dark money has flowed into 2020 elections.” Considering that that figure specifically pertains to a single presidential election cycle, Issue One’s $1 billion estimates seems quite conservative.
Top Dark Money Spenders and Donors
The aforementioned Center for Responsive Politics has published data on the top dark money spenders and donors. One thing that isn’t necessarily apparent or explicitly mentioned is that, if you research these various groups, you will find they come from both major political parties.
It is important to stress that dark money is circulating through the U.S. political system as a whole, from all sides. The public, regardless of each individual’s political beliefs, arguably has a right to know the actual sources of all those millions (even billions) going to influence how they vote or view an issue.
We have taken the top five spenders and donors in U.S. history per OpenSecrets and presented them below.
Dark Money Spenders
|Organization||Amount reported to FEC|
|Defending Democracy Together||$15,489,707|
|Americans for Constitutional Liberty||$7,542,490|
|US Chamber of Commerce||$5,747,676|
|Big Tent Project Fund||$4,819,710|
|Black Progressive Political Action Coalition||$4,549,387|
Dark Money Donors
|Organization||Amount reported to FEC|
|Freedom Partners Chambers of Commerce||$323,936,500|
|American Encore (once named Center to Protect Patient Rights)||$169,148,666|
|Sea Change Foundation||$62,219,482|
Megacorporations and their lobbyists could be heavily influencing legislation and regulation. Do your part and protect the U.S. economy by joining the Zero Theft Movement.
What’s the Problem with Dark Money?
Some have cited the preservation of privacy in defense of dark money. That the anonymity allows everyone to freely participate in politics without exposing themselves, for whatever reason. A bill has even been introduced for this express purpose.
However, genuine and arguably justified fears of the influence of big money (from corporations and the elite) on public officials gets exacerbated when the sources of millions of campaign funding are unknown. For example, Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, published a paper raising concerns about illegal foreign financing impacting elections. With dark money and the global network propping up kleptocrats and crony capitalism, many important questions cannot be properly answered:
- Who actually stands to gain from providing dark money to X or Y candidates?
- Will the public suffer because public officials have ‘favors’ to repay to those who have financially supported their campaigns?
Granted, one cannot make a strong case that money, dark or not, wins elections. Having more funds, in the right hands, will definitely help a politician’s cause. That’s more ads, more rallies, more opportunities to get your name out there.
DID YOU KNOW?
CBS’ 60 Minutes interviewed former Congressman David Jolly, who claimed that he was told it was part of his duties to “raise $18,000 per day.”
How Does Dark Money Get Spent?
The Wesleyan Media Project found that tens of millions of dollars mainly go to funding television and online ads. The data suggested that more than 64 percent of TV ads funded by outside groups were paid for by dark money groups.
Research, using data from the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, have found evidence that political advertisements do little to sway voters at all. Good, bad, it didn’t make much of a difference. Importantly though, that miniscule effect could make all the difference in competitive elections. Alexander Coppock, one of the co-authors of the study, said: “…the effects we demonstrated were small but detectable and could make the difference between winning and losing a close election.”
Probably no one needs to be reminded that neither the 2016 nor 2020 presidential election was one-sided. So all that advertising funded by dark money could have tipped the scales in the favor of one candidate over another.
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Legislation to Outlaw Dark Money
On March 8, 2019, the House of Representatives passed the “Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act” (a.k.a. the DISCLOSE Act). The bill establishes further prohibitions and disclosure requirements for political spending. The Senate version of the DISCLOSE Act has stalled out in the Senate, however.
The Disclose Act would also impose regulations on foreign nationals’ involvement in elections and election decision-making:
- Using foreign money in elections in any capacity would be outlawed
- Identity disclosure required if $10,000 or more is donated, including the direct and indirect beneficial owners of entities making the contribution
Should Dark Money Remain a Part of U.S. Politics?
Dark money, for however long it’s allowed, will continue to spark debate among citizens and politicians alike. In this case, we have a matter of transparency vs. privacy.
Where do you stand on the issue? What do you think the chances are that bad actors are using dark money to influence politics (and therefore legislation and regulation) in their favor? Can dark money be used to rig the economy?
We at the Zero Theft Movement are working to calculate the best estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the U.S. Corporate, political, and everything in between. Our community isn’t trying to simplify corruption to a single score, nor are they using the definition of a few experts or business professionals. Each holon, or interpretive group, decides what they consider is ‘theft.’
The Zero Theft Movement provides a safe and independent platform where you and your fellow citizens work together to investigate and debate potentially rigged areas across the economy. Through blockchain voting, the way to make all your work permanent, public, and unchangeable, you decide whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically.
The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.
Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.