By now, you've probably heard the phrase "dark money."
Activists use it. Politicians use it. And journalists use it, including here at the Center for Public Integrity.
For some people, it's just another piece of confusing campaign finance jargon. For others, it's a term of art, with a precise definition.
So here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about dark money in politics.
What makes political money dark money?
The sources behind most of the money raised by politicians and political groups are publicly disclosed. Candidates, parties and political action committees — including the super PACs that are allowed to accept unlimited amounts of money — all report the names of their donors to the Federal Election Commission on a regular basis. Or, to be technical, they regularly disclose the names of all their donors who each give more than $200. But when the source of political money isn't known, that's dark money.
What does political dark money look like?
The two most common vehicles for dark money in politics are politically active nonprofits and corporate entities such as limited liability companies. Certain politically active nonprofits — notably those formed under sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) of the tax code — are generally not required to publicly disclose their donors. Meanwhile, when limited liability companies are formed in certain states, such as Delaware and Wyoming, they are essentially black boxes; the company’s name is basically the only thing known about them. These LLCs can be used to make political expenditures themselves or to donate to super PACs.
How much money are we talking about?
During the 2012 election cycle — the last time the presidency was at stake — dark money groups pumped about $300 million into political messages that called for the election or defeat of federal candidates, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Additionally, dark money groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars on political advertisements that focused more on issues than candidates. The most notable example? Americans for Prosperity, the flagship nonprofit of the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Also worth noting: Dark money doesn’t affect every election. It frequently targets the most high-profile political races.
Do Democrats use dark money?
Yes. Neither party wants to be left behind in the political money arms race. The result: Dark money groups are multiplying — and thriving — on both ends of the political spectrum. However, during the 2012 election cycle, conservative dark money groups that reported expenditures to the FEC outspent liberal ones by about 8-to-1, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.