Sunlight Foundation tries its hand at hopelessly tangled Colorado recall election spending

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]illions of dollars were spent on the Colorado state Senate recall elections this year. The recall efforts were spawned by gun control laws passed in the wake of the 2012 Aurora and Newtown shooting massacres and they became proxy battles in a national war over gun policy. Money poured in from all over the country.

Today brings more evidence that it is nearly impossible to tally how much money was spent and by whom and where it all went.

A year after Sandy Hook, the money-in-politics nonprofit Sunlight Foundation has published a series of stories examining the public policy debates and campaigns that played out in the wake of the tragedy.

In her piece, “Did guns beat money in Colorado recalls?” Denver-based consultant Nancy Watzman takes a hard look at the recall spending. She uses all the transparency resources and expertise of the Sunlight Foundation and she tapped volunteers on the ground in Colorado to visit local media outlets and review spending on advertisements. The result is a post of considerable depth. Yet Watzman concedes in the end that she has delivered another version of the half-story Coloradans have been reading on recall spending for months.

[blockquote]”[The recalls] turned into case studies of how outside interests swamp local elections in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to fully measure.
      Much of the money spent by outside groups… came in the form of undisclosed dollars. There were no limits on contributions to these races and much of the advertising was classified as issue advertising and did not trigger official state reporting requirements. That meant that groups such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, on the pro-recall side, and Americans for Responsible Solutions, on the anti-recall slate, were active but did not report their spending to state authorities…[/blockquote][blockquote]Some groups worked in Colorado but are not detected either in Colorado state records or the broadcast records. Press reports revealed that Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed advocacy group that spent more than $33 million at the federal level on the 2012 elections and is not required to disclose its donors, was working on the races. The group, for example, distributed this door hanger, which criticizes Morse not about his stance on guns but on his support for the Obama health care law.
      The National Association for Gun Rights produced this anti-Morse ad as well. Danielle Thompson, a spokeswoman for the group, earlier told Sunlight that the group had spent about $100,000 on that ad and another produced by the group’s local affiliate, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. The group also produced radio ads, sent emails and engaged in other activities in support of the recalls.[/blockquote]

“The public records are incomplete,” Watzman writes to conclude, in what reads like sympathetic frustration on behalf of interested citizens.

Her investigation makes clear that financial disclosure in U.S. politics is a sort of ghost phrase. The thing it refers to only exists as a flickering shadow, ethereal, half real. Journalists and watchdogs report the spending amounts available to them assiduously, with dedication and gravity that is mocked by the fact that the available numbers undercut the story the authors are trying to tell.

And journalists and watchdogs aren’t the only ones being mocked. So is the Supreme Court, which has embraced spending in the internet age as a form of speech, partly on justification that, in the digital age, transparency rules.

“With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters,” wrote Justice Anthony Scalia in the influential 2010 Citizens United decision. “Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

[ Image by Paul Swansen. ]