This campaign season, in Florida and across the country, we are witnessing an explosion of untraceable campaign contributions. Like dark matter, said to make up the overwhelming majority of the matter in the universe (though we can’t see it), these unaccountable millions appear to be a larger share of the total dollars spent on campaigns this election cycle than the accountable money spent by candidates and political party committees . . . though all we will ever see will be the expenditures, the “effects” of this political dark matter, and not the stuff itself.
The process is simple. Donor X gives money to a 501(c)4 organization (typically one called a “social welfare organization”). Those donations need not be disclosed in any detail, so Donor X remains . . . well, “X.”
The 501(c)4 then either runs its own independent expenditure campaign (more on this in a moment), transfers funds to some other 501(c)4 (perhaps to run an independent expenditure campaign of its own), or donates to a SuperPAC, which must disclose its donors (because it is a PAC), but since the donation has been “laundered” through the 501(c)4, the disclosure is essentially meaningless.
What’s an “independent expenditure campaign”? It is, by law, a campaign for/against some candidate that is operating without any coordination with the campaign of the candidate who is the intended beneficiary of the independent expenditure campaign.
If I create the “Good Government Now” 501(c)4, for example, I can raise unlimited amounts of money from anyone (individual, corporation, union, organization) and no one need ever know from whom I received my contributions, let alone how much they gave. I then am free to spend the money I have raised to support or oppose any candidate(s) I like (of course, one suspects that I must select candidates to support or oppose my donors will be glad I supported or opposed!).
Individuals have been free to spend lots of money this way for quite some time. Corporations and unions only recently gained this power. But the idea that a totally opaque organization can raise unlimited amounts of money from undisclosed sources and spend that money to help elect or defeat any candidate, directly (no “call Senator So-and-So and tell her to stop” need be employed here) and right up until Election Day . . . that’s quite a new wrinkle.
In the month of October, hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into television and radio spots, direct mailers, phone banks, and field operations, all operating “independently” of candidates, and many tens of millions of these dollars are coming from the dark matter of American politics today: these 501(c)4s.
Does it matter?
There is excellent research on the effects of advertising and voter contact programs on voters’ opinions and behaviors. None of it works like a magic bullet, but the “good stuff” can have significant effects at the margins of close races.
Like most of the important races this fall.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, could not see a reasonable claim of a “corrupting influence” from these independent expenditures. Lacking such a claim, they unleashed the deluge of dark money we have seen.
Perhaps candidates are not swayed by the prospect of one of these multi-million dollar dark campaigns being launched against them (nearly all of the money being spent is against candidates, rather than supportive of them). Perhaps the public’s perception of the independence and representativeness of our elected officials is not marred by these air wars launched by shadowy organizations into which the sun never shines.
And perhaps the dark matter of the universe is actually Godiva chocolate.
But I’m not buying it.