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How Dark Money Shrouds Funding Of American Politics

image by Kevin Dooley via Flickr 

Over the past decade, political campaign funding has become increasingly opaque, clouded by unattributed donations which experts have dubbed “dark money.”

What is dark money?

By popular definition, dark money is:

“A term used to describe political spending by innocuously named groups whose own donors – the source of the money – are allowed to remain hidden.”

While dark money cannot be directly donated to candidates, it can be used to fund advertising campaigns in support or against any given candidate, as well as for lobbying.

How, in a political system where federal law mandates that campaign funds be reported, can dark money exist?

Dark money, though the specifics of its origins are hidden, are funneled through a particular breed of non profit called a 501 [c]4, or social welfare group, who act as intermediaries between donations and campaigns.

These groups, then use that money to fund advertising and other campaign funds without having to disclose what the money’s origins actually are. Because of such anonymity, 501 [c] 4’s can (and do) legally spend hundreds of millions on election campaigns as well as Super PAC donations.

In a response to the proliferation of dark money, some state legislatures have even deemed such donations as major legal loopholes, and have enacted legislation which prohibits its its role in state elections–though such legislation has no effect on the broader federal level.

The term dark money has only existed since 2010, when the passage of Citizens United opened the playing field for big donors and Super PACs. Since then, however, it has played a significant role in both state and national political campaigns.

According to political watchdogs Open Secrets, during 2012 (a presidential election year), over $308 million in political donations went undisclosed.

This total is on top of another $200 million in dark money that flooded campaigns for the midterm elections in 2014.

While dark money accounted for just 5 percent of the total money spent ($4 billion) on 2014 midterms, The Sunlight Foundation warns that a disproportionate amount of it goes to politically advantageous swing states.

How dark money can affect political campaigns

When it comes to dark money in politics, there are several concerns about its potential effects on future elections. Some of these concerns are:

Unattributed attack ads may wield more power

Through gauging the credibility of ads which disclosed funding and those who did not, a study published by American Politics Research found that ads which did not disclose their funding were found to be more credible amongst respondents.

This, researchers believe, may indicate that disclosure (which dark money lacks) plays a key role in how much ads can affect a viewer’s opinion.

Dark money gives special interest groups undue influence in politics

Stemming from the lack of transparency, some critics worry that dark money may compromise politicians integrity by placing elected officials in a scenario where they can be easily influenced by money.

For instance, a politician who receives a large donation from a coal manufacturer may give special preference to such a corporation in the form of legislative favors.

Dark money’s inherent lack of transparency makes it difficult to judge a candidate’s integrity

If a presidential candidate, whose platform included anti-fracking legislation, was being funded by shale oil companies, would you still vote for them?

Scenarios like this are also a major concern with dark money. When it’s impossible to tell where money is coming from, it may be difficult to make an informed voting decision.

The takeaway

Dark money has expanded significantly in recent years.

While the IRS has issued a draft of rules that intend to restrict  social welfare organizations’ spending on political campaigns, and therefore the dark money they can funnel into politics, ProPublica reports that the legislation likely won’t be ready before 2016 presidential elections.

For another presidential election, it’s likely that the money, as well as voters nationwide, will continue to be kept in the dark.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
James Pero