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Without better laws, "dark money" groups will prosper in 2014 state races

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Campaign spending is flooding all levels of government in the post-Citizens-United era. What is worse than the millions flowing freely, however, is that much of this is so-called “dark money”—the sources of this spending are hidden. The public has no idea who is behind the deluge of ads that can swamp a campaign in the final weeks of an election.

The Center for Public Integrity’s latest report on independent money spent on state-level races shows that state disclosure laws are weak or nonexistent in more than half of all states. You can find out about your state by clicking here.  

Produced in collaboration with the National Institute on Money in State Politics,  we show clearly that in 30 states it is impossible to calculate how much money is being spent on campaigns by outside groups like “social welfare” nonprofits — information that is mostly available when it comes to federal contests.

And in 35 states, disclosure laws are less stringent than federal election laws, meaning shadowy nonprofit groups and big-spending super PACs are able to do business virtually undetected in many races.

This is important because a majority of states will elect their governors, legislatures and other major statewide officers in 2014. But the public will not know how much money will be spent to influence the outcome of most of those races. This 50-state analysis of state laws graded the states from A to F on disclosure requirements for super PACs, nonprofits and other outside spending groups. 

fresh example from Montana shows how last-minute “dark money” can swing an election. We report that a candidate for the state Supreme Court was clobbered with misleading mailers and radio ads. The ads were paid for by a nonprofit group called the Montana Growth Network, a largely unknown organization. Under Montana’s laws, the group is not required to report its spending nor disclose the sources of its funds.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 added about $1 billion in spending to federal races in the 2012 election cycle and led to unlimited spending by individuals, corporations and unions.

But the decision also impacted the states. It is a near certainty that more money than ever before will be pouring into state races in 2014, but without better laws in many states, the sources of these funds will never be known.

One hundred years ago, in an article in Harper’s Weekly, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." To paraphrase the justice, transparency and full accountability for campaign spending can be the best disinfectant for democracy, and an antidote to dark money.

Until next week,

Bill