The Dark Matter of the American Electoral Universe

The Dark Matter of the American Electoral Universe

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.

One Response to The Dark Matter of the American Electoral Universe

  • jimfrishe

    “Lacking such a claim, they unleashed the deluge of dark money we have seen.”

    Is it because you disagree with what they have to say, or you think they do not have the right to say it at all?

    Yes, we did limit political speech for a while, but it was so some people could maintain political power. The courts have now said the First Amendment means what it says.
    Congress shall make no law…, abridging the freedom of speech,…

    Actually, I think the Supreme Court decision basically said there should be no limit on the volume of political speech a person or entity can produce. The “Unions” have been able to do this for a long time. They could spend as much money as they could acquire and would pay workers “on their days off” to campaign. Corporations can now do the same thing. So can very wealthy individuals.

    Most of the money is traceable. Big money always is, because the person “putting it up” wants credit. George Soros spent millions on MoveOn.org (among other groups) and no one said a thing (other than I wish I had that kind of money). Candidates can spend their own money now too. (Boy, don’t I know). Tom Steyer, who made his money from hedge funds that had energy assets Now wants candidates who will regulate those companies to achieve his new goal of no new carbon added to the atmosphere. He has committed $100 million to implement the climate change agenda this election. We have seen a lot of it in Florida. It is his money to spend as he sees fit. Sen. Harry Reid rails against the Koch brothers, but thinks George Soros is a stand up guy.

    Is all this money sinister? Only to the point that we have an electorate that believes their local newspaper or 30 sec. T.V. spots, uncritically. That is not George Soros’, Charles Koch’s or Tom Steyer’s fault….and certainly not reason enough for the Congress to restrict their freedom of speech. When the citizenry of this country realizes that they have to take responsibility for their government, perhaps the impact of large sums will diminish. It will require a public that knows how it’s government works. Most, though, cannot even name their state legislator. Don’t believe me? Ask the next waiter or waitress you have serve you. Ask your mechanic. Ask your grocery store clerk. Ask them, “Who is your State Representative?”

    These campaigns have an impact. That is why so much money goes into them. We have a democratic Republic, so we get the government we deserve. End of Rant