February 28, 2020
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Here’s how we can shine light on dark money trying to win your vote

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Some Mainers may not have noticed, but the second week of March marked the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week, sponsored by several news organizations and foundations, is intended to draw attention to the importance of open government.

What most Mainers surely have noticed are the rapidly increasing amounts of money spent on elections at the national, state and even local levels of government. Much of this money is so-called “ dark money.” Its origins are murky at best. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent to get us to vote in ways the spenders of those dollars want, and yet we don’t know who the spenders are. The success of democracy relies on an informed electorate, including being informed about who is trying to influence our votes with big-dollar ad buys and other campaign activities.

Following on the heels of Sunshine Week there was another anniversary: the sixth anniversary of arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. When the court’s decision in that case was handed down the following January, it opened the floodgates to unlimited independent corporate, union and nonprofit expenditures in election campaigns.

In the last two federal election cycles, dark money groups spent upwards of $500 million without disclosing their donors. In some races, these independent expenditures may actually exceed the money spent by candidates themselves.

In Maine, an investigation by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections traced the money spent by independent groups and found that funding from high-profile national donors like George Soros on the left and the Koch brothers on the right had made its way into Maine races. But voters didn’t know that until months after the election.

An informed electorate needs to know before, not after, an election who is trying to influence their votes. Although we have different party affiliations, we agree that we need effective public disclosure so voters can make better-informed decisions at the ballot box and hold elected officials accountable. Here’s how we can shine light on dark money.

This November, Mainer voters will have the opportunity to vote for the Clean Elections ballot initiative, which, among other things, would institute mandatory disclaimers in independent political advertising. These disclaimers will provide real-time disclosure so voters will know who is behind each ad at the time they see or hear it. Political groups should have to stand by their ads so voters know who is speaking and judge for themselves the credibility of the message.

But the issue of money in politics doesn’t stop when the votes are counted. In Maine, the winner of the election for governor can receive thousands of dollars from special-interest groups in support of the transition from candidate to governor-elect, including spending money on the winner’s inaugural party. No reporting or disclosure of this money is required by Maine law, but one can imagine that these expenditures can influence a governor’s actions once in office just as much as the money spent before the election.

It makes no sense to track every dollar raised and spent in a gubernatorial campaign, only to allow our highest elected official to receive unlimited dark money in the weeks following the election. The Clean Elections ballot initiative would close this loophole.

Another growing concern for those of us who seek greater transparency and accountability in elections is that certain types of nonprofit corporations can spend large sums of money advocating for or against candidates for public office without disclosing their donors in the way that candidates, PACs and other political groups are required to do. That spending is aimed at influencing voters, so voters have a right to know who is behind it.

Our colleagues, Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, have both introduced bills that would increase disclosure of political contributions and campaign financing.

Sunshine Week has come and gone. Now is the time to fulfill its mission. We urge voters in Maine and our colleagues in the State House to support simple, common sense solutions for transparency and accountability in government.

State Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta is a Republican representing District 15. State Sen. Anne Haskell of Portland is a Democrat representing District 28.

 


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