Even before the last dollar has been tallied, we already know one thing: We’re not going to be able to identify a lot of the donors—small and large—in the 2010 mid-term elections. According to the Center for Responsibility in Washington [CREW], “of the nearly $300 million spent by outside groups in attempts to influence the election, the public remains completely in the dark about who’s behind 42 percent of these expenditures.”
42 percent? Yikes! Almost half of what was spent came from anonymous donors. And, as the final tallies emerge, that figure could rise. That’s a fact that should frighten us—a fact that is a huge threat to democracy. It’s bad enough that in the Citizens United case, the US Supreme Court opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate contributions in elections. But not to be able to know who paid what to whom—and not to be able to use that information to extrapolate motivations behind elected officials’ votes—that just seems to push American democracy even more toward the banana-republic corruption that we’ve smugly joked about many years.
Some groups spending big bucks in advance of the election — namely nonprofits that classified as 501(c) groups under the U.S. tax code — are not required by law to disclose their donors. And their political investments this year have proliferated, with some of these groups taking advantage of the new campaign finance landscape that no longer prohibits their use of corporate cash in the final stretch of the election.
At the federal level, more than $123 million has been donated by anonymous sources to nonprofit organizations that have run television and radio advertisements, sent out direct mailers and bought up Internet ad space ahead of today’s election.
Many of these nonprofits are affiliated with explicitly political groups registered under section 527 of U.S. tax code — political action committees, “super PACs” or other 527 organizations, entities that must disclose their donors. Oftentimes, one organization’s different legal entities use the same name, so tracking where the money is coming from — and which one of those legal entities is making the expenditures — is all the more difficult.
The 2010 election marks the rise of a new political committee, dubbed “super PACs,” and officially known as “independent-expenditure only committees,” which can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals. Super PACs may overtly advocate for the defeat or election of federal candidates. In addition to super PACs and regular political action committees (which raise money via contributions capped at $5,000 per year), special interest groups also have other vehicles at their disposal to influence elections and policy. These include 527 organizations registered with the Internal Revenue Service and 501(c) nonprofits, which aren’t primarily supposed to be involved in politics, but are allowed limited political activity. 501(c) groups must also register with the IRS, but do not have to publicly disclose their donors.
And, by the way, progressives should refrain from feeling smug about all of this. Several groups advocating for Democratic candidates spent big money, too, and a big chunk of their donors will remain anonymous, as well. Democrats were outspent, but not for lack of trying.
CREW offers several charts with eye-popping totals of independent expenditures. It’s not a pretty picture, if you care about democracy.