Democrats are pushing a sweeping package of voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reforms as their top legislative priority in 2021. One of the pieces of the bill is a section requiring independent political groups that currently don’t have to disclose their donors ― whose donations are known as “dark money” ― to finally do so.
This provision, previously known as the DISCLOSE Act, has been a major part of Democrats’ campaign finance reform agenda for years. But one major thing has changed since 2010, when Republicans dominated dark money spending: Today, it’s Democrats.
Democratic Party-aligned dark money groups ― nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors ― spent more than $514 million on the 2020 elections, according to a review of FEC records by the Center for Responsive Politics. That compared to around $200 million by Republican Party-allied groups.
The totals reported by the Center for Responsive Politics include both independent expenditures made by dark money groups and contributions from dark money groups to super PACs, which do have to report their donors.
The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision legalized unlimited corporate, labor and individual political spending on third-party electoral efforts. This created an unintended disclosure gap by allowing nonprofit groups that accept corporate donations and do not disclose their donors to spend money on election campaigns.
The disclosure of political donations plays a central role in the U.S. campaign finance regulation system. That system favors disclosure, as citizens should be able to know who could be influencing their elected representatives and because donations carry the possibility of corruption and the appearance of corruption. The Citizens United decision, penned by then-Justice Anthony Kennedy, even included an endorsement of disclosure as it opened the door to dark money.
But Congress failed to pass the DISCLOSE Act to close that door. The bill fell one vote short of clearing a Republican filibuster in 2010.
The shift in dark money dominance from Republicans to Democrats began in the 2018 election cycle. This marked a major change after Republican dark money groups outspent Democratic groups 4-1 in the 2016 election.
Democrats created an entire ecosystem of dark money groups in order to take the lead away from Republicans in this field of campaign spending. The major Democratic Party super PACs associated with different offices each launched their own dark money arms.
For example, Priorities USA Action, which focuses on presidential races, launched Priorities USA; the House Majority PAC opened House Majority Forward; and the Senate Majority PAC launched Majority Forward PAC. These three dark money groups each spent tens of millions on the 2020 election.
They were joined by new dark money hubs that distributed undisclosed funds to super PACs to spend on election campaigns. The largest of these, Sixteen Thirty Fund and Future Forward USA Action, contributed $61 million apiece to super PACs that spent that money on the 2020 election.
And despite this newfound dominance, Democrats are still looking to pass the DISCLOSE Act — now part of the voting, finance and ethics-focused For The People Act — and end dark money spending on elections.
“The Sixteen Thirty Fund unequivocally supports the For The People Act and its historic provisions to strengthen our democracy by expanding voting rights, enhancing ethics rules, and reforming campaign finance regulations,” Amy Kurtz, executive director of the Sixteen Thirty Fund, said in a statement to HuffPost.
The bill has already passed the House on a nearly party-line vote (one Democrat voted no). Senate Democrats formally introduced the Senate version of the bill on Wednesday with all but Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) signed on as co-sponsors.
The topic of Democratic dark money spending came up in a March 10 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on dark money in judicial appointment campaigns. Subcommittee chairman Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), previously the lead sponsor of the Senate DISCLOSE Act, sponsored the hearing.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) noted the increasing dominance of Democratic dark money spending. He remarked that he faced tens of millions of dollars in dark money spending that aimed “to beat me into the ground.”
“All the people thundering about dark money are getting elected with it,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said.
But Whitehouse noted that the DISCLOSE Act, embedded in the For The People Act, would require both Democratic and Republican groups to disclose their donors.
“Now, Republican colleagues have faced massive attacks leveled through Democratic front groups,” Whitehouse said. “So perhaps this slime machine can be a bipartisan concern.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Amy Kurtz’s last name as Katz.