What You Don't Know May Well Hurt You -- Dark Money

Co-authored by Lisa Gilbert

What you don't know could well hurt you.

A deadlocked Congress has been unwilling to lift the veil on the massive secret money being spent in our elections. As we take the plunge into yet another election season with record-breaking spending on largely negative TV ads brought to you by groups with generic names that tell you nothing about them, the need to understand the sources of election funding has never been greater.

A few examples: Campaign ads are now besieging voters in Michigan that condemn the Democratic senatorial candidate for supporting the Affordable Care Act and, using highly questionable data, suggest the law is causing insurance premiums to rise 40 percent. Is this ad paid for by health care specialists seeking better health care, by the insurance industry disgruntled with caps on profits or by partisan ideologues who really care little about health care? Only the funders know for sure.

Another campaign ad airing in Arkansas attacks the Republican senatorial candidate using thin evidence that the candidate is closely tied to the insurance industry and wants to end Medicare. Is this ad paid for by senior citizen advocates, by unions angry about the candidate's position on labor issues or by partisan ideologues who really care little about Medicare? Again, the public is left guessing.

Knowing who is behind these advertisements would provide voters with valuable information to discern the truthfulness of the ads. Without this information voters lack the greatest source of information for weighing the merits of the messages.

On July 23 the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee will hold a hearing to promote transparency of money in federal elections. Legislation to provide this clarity has already been introduced, ranging from the DISCLOSE Act (which requires all electioneering groups to disclose their significant donors) to the Real Time Transparency Act (which requires candidates, parties and PACs to disclose major donors electronically in 48 hours). Regulatory remedies are being considered at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require corporations to inform shareholders of their political spending and at the IRS to require politically active nonprofits to disclose the sources of their campaign spending. But it is unclear whether Congress or the SEC and IRS will take any action.

It is time to hold Congress and executive agencies accountable if they continue to let transparency lapse and conceal from the public the identities of those who are trying to buy our elections.

"Dark money" in our elections is a growing problem. Our country had nearly 100 percent donor disclosure in federal elections following the passage of the McCain-Feingold law in 2002. But when the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United opened the floodgates for money from corporations and the super-rich to flow into elections, Public Citizen found that campaign spending by outside groups increased fourfold in the 2010 elections over the previous congressional election cycle. It then increased another fourfold in the 2012 elections.

Yet, as the money increased, transparency of the sources of all that campaign money fell, dropping to about 50 percent in 2010 after that year's Citizens United decision, according to a Public Citizen analysis. By 2012 more than $300 million in dark money paid for political ads, and we are on track this election cycle to outpace that.

Voter ignorance is the price we pay in today's world of dark money, and Americans don't like it one bit. Poll after poll shows that overwhelming majorities of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents alike -- strongly favor full transparency of money in politics. Nearly a million citizens have submitted comments to the SEC urging the agency to require disclosure of corporate political spending.

Disclosure is the solution to much of what ails our democracy, not the problem. Those in Congress who are opponents of transparency not only trample on the right of Americans to know who is trying to influence our vote; they run afoul of the very nature of free and open elections.

As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in Doe v. Reed, a 2010 decision upholding transparency, "[T]he fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate, or to take part in the legislative process."

When we let those who are trying to buy elections hide in the shadows, voters could end up paying a steep price.

*Craig Holman, Ph.D. and Lisa Gilbert are, respectively, government affairs lobbyist and director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch division.