A recent story in the Huffington Post outlined state-level efforts to combat the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, even as reform efforts in the federal level have stalled. We applaud states that are willing to take on the issue of dark money but urge them to focus their energies on disclosure, the only state-level approach that will have both an immediate and positive impact.
Three states, Connecticut, Maryland and New York, have adopted new disclosure rules so that their citizens can learn who is paying for the dark-money ads telling them who to vote for. That’s the good news. The bad news is that two of those states—Connecticut and Maryland—robbed Peter to pay Paul by packaging their disclosure rules with increased limits on campaign contributions. So while the public in those states will be more informed when they go to the polls, they will also be electing individuals who, even more than before, are beholden to a tiny sliver of the population who are willing and able to give the maximum amount to candidates.
The theory behind increasing contribution limits is to give candidates the resources they need to counter the dark money ads. There is no doubt that dark money expenditures take message control out of the hands of the candidates and put it into the hands of special interests. But allowing the deepest pockets to have even more access to elected officials in exchange for greater transparency is not a fair trade. We need disclosure and limits. If candidates need additional resources to combat dark money ads, reforms should be addressed at encouraging more individuals to contribute smaller, non-corrupting contributions. Allowing the 1% of the 1% to have even more opportunities to buy access and influence is no reform at all. (In addition, gambling with higher contribution limits might not pay off. In Minnesota, increased disclosure and increased contribution limits were originally paired in legislation. But in the end, members of the state legislature dropped the disclosure provisions but still raised contribution limits.)
On the flip side, some states are attempting to fight the unlimited, undisclosed money that is fueling their elections by passing resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. As misguided as that decision was, a constitutional amendment is, at best, a long-term solution. Even if efforts are ultimately successful, results are unlikely to come in time to impact dark money in the next presidential election, much less the upcoming midterms. Meanwhile, dark money funders will continue to pour money into elections. The $300 million in dark money expenditures made in 2012 will likely seem like chump change by 2016. If we can’t stop the money from coming in, we at least need to know where it is coming from. Otherwise, the only ones who will know who is paying for our elections will be the candidates themselves.