Insight into the ever-growing power of dark money in US politics
Dark money, or anonymous political donations channeled through corporations, nonprofits and other groups, has become a dominant force in US elections in the years since 2010, when the landmark Supreme Court decision Citizens United allowed the practice. But the way dark money works is constantly in flux.
“It shows in advocacy for certain laws,” said Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio. “But also acc The Washington Post and other dark money is used to influence the courts — where groups with unnamed donors can pay for ads or articles promoting, for example, the confirmation of Supreme Court justices, or even against that confirmation.”
Adams spoke to Brancaccio about how dark money works at the federal, state and local levels and if there are any signs the rules may change in the future. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: Well, we both learned that in college – define your terms. The dark money here is what?
Kimberly Adams: They are political issues where the source of the money is not publicly disclosed. And it often has the appearance of disclosure – perhaps a political action committee tied to a particular candidate spends money and discloses its donors, but that list of donors includes non-profit or nebulous LLCs or even shell companies that are not required to disclose, where you get your money.
Brancaccio: Our documentary this month focused on how this dark money works at the state level, but how ubiquitous is it at the national level?
Adam’s: It really is everywhere. The New York Times recently conducted an investigation into dark money spending in the 2020 election and reported that groups aligned with Democrats spent more than $1.5 billion in dark money and groups aligned with Republicans more spent than $900 million. Open Secrets, a watchdog group that now works with the Follow the Money group we saw in the documentary, is following this pretty closely — or at least as far as it can. And they say that some of the biggest races that have attracted dark money lately were, of course, the 2020 presidential race, but also the very controversial Georgia Senate races, as well as the North Carolina Senate races, and, just like the movie , Montana.
Brancaccio: Okay, so influential money of uncertain origin – could be wealthy individuals, could be unions, all sorts of things – we know it matters at the state and federal electoral level. Where else does so much money appear?
Adam’s: It shows up in advocating certain laws. Take the Build Back Better agenda, for example: you may see ads for it or against it, and you don’t really know where that money is coming from. But according to The Washington Post and others, black money is also being used to sway the courts — where groups with unnamed donors can pay for ads or articles promoting, for example, the confirmation of Supreme Court justices, or even against that confirmation. And at the local level, it can often come up on issues related to education. There are accusations that dark money is at work in things like a school privatization initiative in Michigan, school board races in Colorado, and even some of the coordinated protests against critical race theory and book bans we’re seeing across the country.
Brancaccio: Any laws or regulations on this subject are changing?
Adam’s: I mean it doesn’t look anytime soon. There have been efforts in the Democratic Voting Rights Act to make fairly significant changes to campaign finance laws. It would have persuaded more of these dark money groups to disclose their donors. But that bill failed, and it’s not clear if that particular part of it, the DISCLOSE Act, could get through on its own. At the state level, there have been recent attempts at campaign finance reform in Oregon, Virginia and, of course, Montana, but they have been largely unsuccessful. And several states have actually enacted laws preventing government agencies from requiring additional disclosures from some of these groups.