How To Buy An Election With Dark Money
How To Buy An Election With Dark Money
Every day more and more voters become aware of the huge role money plays in our elections. According to a Washington Post article, the candidate with the most money wins 91% of the time. After all, if people are financing elections with their donations it makes sense that the candidate with the most donations would get the most votes.
The problem with this line of thinking is that people aren’t the only ones financing elections. For example, if we add up all the individual contributions (that is money donated by living, breathing people) to Colorado political candidates going back to 2010 we get a total of around $53 million, but donations from various interest groups combined with dark money spending total around $66 million.
Take a moment to consider what this means. If the better-financed candidate wins 9 times out of 10, and individual donors make up a comparatively small portion of fundraising, who is really deciding who wins elections?
The simple truth is that interest groups are able to target elections in which they can have the biggest impact and spend the money necessary to bring about whatever outcome they desire. This is what we mean when we talk about “buying elections”, it’s not hyperbole.
To illustrate just how simple it is to buy an election if you have the money, I’m going to lay out the process step by step. One of the most common ways to buy an election these days is with dark money. Dark money refers to the untraceable funds we often run into when we investigate the money behind a political effort. But how exactly do you use untraceable funds to buy an election? Let’s walk through the process.
Step 1 – What’s Your issue?
Let’s pretend you want to make it illegal to leave your shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot. In your opinion, the people who refuse to secure their shopping carts properly are the cause of countless dings, dents, and scratches as their abandoned carts inevitably careen into the helpless cars of the parking lot. Your legislators have refused to pass a law to address this issue, so you’re taking matters into your own hands.
Step 2 – Get a Pile of Money
This step is the simplest to understand, but the hardest to attain. However, if you consider that the top 10% of Americans hold 80% of the wealth, you can see that this is not a problem for a small number of wealthy Americans. It is also not a problem for corporations who often have tons of cash laying around. If you’re like me, you’re not in possession of shareholder money or a part of the wealthy elite…and the parking lot protectors of America don’t have a huge fundraising base…so we’ll just pretend you win the lottery and suddenly have a pile of money, $500,000 to be exact. A half a million bucks isn’t chump change, but it’s not Koch Brothers money either. You will need to be strategic with how you spend it.
Step 2 – Find the Elections with the Best Bang for Your Buck
You could try to elect a candidate for Congress who would sponsor your shopping cart law, but then your $500,000 wouldn’t have as much of an impact. Why not look at local elections? Sure they aren’t as sexy, but they are much more accessible. A typical winning campaign for a State House of Representatives seat costs around $125,000. It’s a bargain! You can bankroll 4 of these puppies.
Step 3 – Locate the Candidates
You find 4 candidates running for different State House Districts and set up meetings. During these meetings you will voice your strong desire for a shopping cart law. Candidates are smart and know before they meet you just how much money you have to spend. Given the money you have to offer, it won’t be long before you find 4 candidates who wholeheartedly agree that we need shopping cart legislation, and we need it now.
Step 4 – Go Dark
Great, you found your parking lot friendly politicians, but there’s a problem. Colorado law only allows you to donate $400 per candidate per election cycle. That’s not going to do any good. How are you going to ensure your 4 politicians win if you can only give them a measly $400 each? Do you really have the same amount of influence as anyone who can scrape together $400? That just seems too fair to be true…and it is. So how do you get around these pesky campaign finance laws?
Fortunately for you, politically active nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors AND they can receive unlimited funds from anywhere. You pay an attorney a few hundred bucks to open up a 501(c)4 and dump the $500,000 in there. You can open it in, say, New York and name it “ Shopping Carts Are Dangerous”. Not only are you almost ready to spend, but no one will be able to see that it was us who is doing the spending!
Step 5 – Go Darker
You’ve covered our trail, but you still have the pesky $400 limit to deal with. No worries, there’s an easy fix. All you have to do is open an “independent expenditure committee” with the Colorado Secretary of State. You have to name and register it too, so you can call it the “No Runaway Carts” committee. Now you can transfer the whole $500,000 into it, and all anyone can see is that there’s an Independent Expenditure Committee called “No Runaway Carts” with $500,000 in it, which came from a New York non-profit called “Shopping Carts Are Dangerous”. From there the trail goes cold. You’ve officially joined the dark side.
Step 6 – Spend, Spend, Spend
There’s just one last hurdle. Current law not only limits contributions to candidates from people to $400, but it outright prohibits independent expenditure committees from donating to directly candidates. However, and this is a BIG however, independent expenditure committees CAN spend money on behalf of, or in opposition to, candidates as long as they don’t coordinate directly with the candidate. In other words, if a candidate wants to buy a commercial for $20,000 you aren’t allowed to give them $20,000 for it, and you’re not allowed to call them and ask them if they want you to buy a commercial for them. You are allowed to simply buy the commercial.
If this seems like a roadblock for your spending, it really isn’t. If you spend $125,000 on commercials, mailers, and other advertisements for each of our 4 politicians they will have a huge advantage over their opponents. You can even attack their opponents directly, this way you get a negative message out and your politicians can say they had nothing to do with it. With your $500,000 you can buy all the things that cost the most money during an election, as long as you don’t directly coordinate with the candidate. When it comes down to influencing the outcome of an election, the prohibition on coordinating with candidates is not a big hurdle.
With any luck, all 4 of your candidates will win. With bad luck, 3 of the 4 will win. Either way, when they are sworn in you’ll be there to remind them just how important parking lot safety is, and if necessary, remind them just how important your help was in getting them elected. You can even draft their first bill for them about parking lot safety.
There you have it, you’re the proud new owner of 4 elected officials. While I’ve tried to keep this topic as light as possible, it’s important to realize that these dark money groups really do hold an enormous amount of sway over our politicians and real people suffer for it. You may have never heard the term “independent expenditure committee” before, but you probably have heard of super-PACs. They are the same thing. They are both the mechanism used to inject large quantities of untraceable money into our political system in order to rig an election.
In our example, the 4 politicians you met with ended up having a tremendous advantage. This advantage was cemented the moment you decided to spend money on their behalf. That decision is what decided the elections. As much as we like to think that debates and policy positions matter, they often don’t. Many, if not most, elections in this country are decided in the fundraising meetings that happen before the first door is ever knocked or the first flyer is ever mailed. That is what we mean when we talk about buying an election.
Since 2010, over $43 million in dark money has flooded into Colorado Elections. There are currently 60 active independent expenditure committees operating in Colorado.
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