Guest Post: Mystery Money is Drowning Democracy

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There are less than 100 days until Election Day on November 6th, and under Colorado’s mail ballot election system Coloradans will start voting even sooner than that.  So it’s not surprising that campaign flyers are already showing up in mailboxes across our state.

What may surprise you is that under our state’s currently flawed campaign finance laws, it’s perfectly legal for some types of organizations to distribute campaign flyers anonymously – without any indication of who paid for them.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated or none of the above, this should bother you. Colorado voters deserve to know who is trying to influence our elections.

Certain forms of communications – like when a flyer from a third party organization specifically asks you to vote for a candidate – must include a disclaimer, which is a note indicating who paid for the communication.  That information lets voters to do their own research or go online to find out more about that organization. But some forms of communications are not required to include that disclaimer, thereby allowing so-called “mystery money” to influence our elections.

Colorado’s disclaimer law needs to be expanded to cover the types of election ads that we see today.  This lack of transparency encourages political flyers that are misleading or based on inaccurate information – or both – which lowers the level of our democratic discourse.

This is why during the 2018 legislative session I sponsored the “Stand By Your Ad Act” with Senator Steve Fenberg of Boulder to address this important issue. Our bill would have expanded the scope of disclaimer requirements under Colorado campaign finance law and specifically included online political ads, which are proliferating.  Transparency in online advertising is especially important in light of the scandalous conduct of Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 election.  Concerns about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of personal information grew so vast that the firm shut down earlier this year. The goal of the Stand By Your Ad Act was to ensure transparency in political advertising and enhance engagement in our political process.  

My Democratic colleagues and I enthusiastically passed this bill through the House despite every House Republican voting against it. It’s still unclear to me why they voted against it – transparency in our elections should not be a partisan issue. Unfortunately, the Republicans that control the State Senate followed suit and killed our bill on a party-line vote. We will bring the bill back next year, and I will keep working on campaign finance transparency issues for as long as I am a member of our state legislature.

A number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last decade have allowed unprecedented sums of undisclosed money to influence elections at all levels.  At the very least, we can drag those mystery flyers into the light so voters are aware of who is spending money to sway public opinion.

Unfortunately, the federal government is encouraging less transparency, not more.  Earlier this month, Trump’s Treasury Secretary announced that the IRS will no longer require tax-exempt organizations – designated as 501(c)(4s) under the tax code –  to disclose the names or addresses of their donors on their annual tax returns. This move will further reduce transparency and open the floodgates for more mystery money to flow into elections at all levels.  

More transparency about electoral processes can reduce skepticism of politics and increase voter participation. I hope my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will join me next year in tamping down mystery money.

Mike Weissman represents Aurora at the state legislature. He serves on the House Judiciary Committee and the House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee.

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact tina@coloradoindependent.com.

Lead image by Wonder woman0731 for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

10 COMMENTS

  1. I’m glad political campaign contributions are kept anonymous. It’s none of your or anyone else’s damned business which candidates or what political causes I support.

    Think back a few years ago when Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich was fired as CEO. He was dismissed by the nonprofit maker of the Firefox browser after deranged attacks on Twitter and elsewhere over his $1,000 contribution to support of the 2008 gay-marriage ban in California.

    Keep your Orwellian “disclosure laws” away from Colorado, Congressman. We don’t need it, and we don’t want it.

  2. Why do Republicans consistently vote down transparency laws for campaign finance, especially in the face of our wide-open, unlimited giving thanks to Citizens United?

    We have laws against foreign entities participating in our elections, but without finance transparency, we have no idea how much foreign nationals and foreign governments are participating.

    Maybe we’ll get an idea if we get to see how much Russian money was laundered through the NRA in the 2016 election cycle.

    Colorado should be leading the nation in transparent government, and that starts with our election process.

  3. “Why do Republicans consistently vote down transparency laws for campaign finance, especially in the face of our wide-open, unlimited giving thanks to Citizens United?”

    Because of the First Amendment. Have you ever read it? Here, let me help:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    The First Amendment says nothing about the government forcing those who exercise their right of free speech to give out their name and address to the public, such that any kook can firebomb their house.

    I realize that Democrats on in favor of identification since so many of them don’t work and have plenty of time to harass their political opponents. But Republicans work all day and can’t afford to do the same.

    Keep political speech anonymous.

  4. CapitalRoader —

    have you considered the possible contradiction of your thoughts?

    In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, [21. 514 U.S. 334 (1995)].
    though there was a powerful case that the First Amendment protected anonymous political speech, Justice Scalia sided with the progressive tradition that permitted the state to ban anonymous speech. [22. See id. at 371–85 (Scalia, J., dissenting)]. Chief Justice Rehnquist joined the dissent.

    One key paragraph:
    “But the usefulness of a signing requirement lies not only in promoting observance of the law against campaign falsehoods (though that alone is enough to sustain it). It lies also in promoting a civil and dignified level of campaign debate–which the State has no power to command, but ample power to encourage by such undemanding measures as a signature requirement. Observers of the past few national elections have expressed concern about the increase of character assassination–“mudslinging” is the colloquial term–engaged in by political candidates and their supporters to the detriment of the democratic process. Not all of this, in fact not much of it, consists of actionable untruth; most is innuendo, or demeaning characterization, or mere disclosure of items of personal life that have no bearing upon suitability for office. Imagine how much all of this would increase if it could be done anonymously. The principal impediment against it is the reluctance of most individuals and organizations to be publicly associated with uncharitable and uncivil expression. Consider, moreover, the increased potential for “dirty tricks.” It is not unheard of for campaign operatives to circulate material over the name of their opponents or their opponents’ supporters (a violation of election laws) in order to attract or alienate certain interest groups. See, e.g., B. Felknor, Political Mischief: Smear, Sabotage, and Reform in U. S. Elections 111-112 (1992) (fake United Mine Workers’ newspaper assembled by the National Republican Congressional Committee); New York v. Duryea, 76 Misc. 2d 948, 351 N. Y. S. 2d 978 (Sup. 1974) (letters purporting to be from the “Action Committee for the Liberal Party” sent by Republicans). How much easier–and sanction free!–it would be to circulate anonymous material (for example, a really tasteless, though not actionably false, attack upon one’s own candidate) with the hope and expectation that it will be attributed to, and held against, the other side. “

  5. Hypocrisy much?

    When given the opportunity to vote to preserve disclosure, Mike Weissman went the other way –
    instead voting to REMOVE existing disclosure requirements involving payments to lawyers and law firms conducting work for candidates and political committees (“in-kind” contributions of legal services).

    Weissman’s vote for the “Lawyer Loophole” legislation this last year (HB18-1047) carves out disclosure exemptions for lawyers and law firms – enabling them to launder loads of “dark money” in politics.

    Perhaps because he, himself, is a lawyer in addition to being a politician?

  6. Well, I’ve worked all my life and I value every penny I’ve earned and every single penny that I spend.

    The last thing I want to do is to spend a penny at a business that promotes the overthrow of democracy in our country in favor of the fascism being promoted by the current administration.

    The first amendment protects everyone’s right to freedom of speech. It does NOT, however, protect the speaker from ridicule and the consequences of their speech.

    So yes, if you are giving monetary support to overthrow our democratic-republic in favor of some authoritarian regime, then yes, you have every right in the world to do that.

    But I also have a right to hear you and shun you – especially if you’re a foreign entity of any kind.

    We have laws against foreign interference in our government. To mask their “speech” is to cover up a crime.

    To mask the speech of citizens plotting to overthrow our democratic republic is also covering up a crime against all law-abiding citizens.

    I’m sorry, CapitalistRoader, that freedom is so frightening to you. Taking responsibility for your actions and your speech is an essential element of freedom.

  7. Want to actually SOLVE the problems this state has? Start by REMOVING ALL private money from elections. What is needed is a thoughtful discussion and INTELLIGENT people coming to a solid, reasonable, workable answer to whatever the problem at hand is, and you’re NOT going to get that when there is someone’s profits on the line. If they have the ability to flood politicians with cash, there is NO way that discussion will ever be allowed to take place, and NO solutions to anything will ever be found.

    Private money in elections is nothing but legalized bribery. Why do you think the politicians like it so much this way? They get paid to shaft us, and we keep voting for them to do so. This is insanity. The ONLY things we get are those things that keep the too damned rich that way and at OUR expense.
    Congressvermin SAY they hate this system, but do you see ONE of them trying to fix it? They hate it so much they keep passing things to make it WORSE.

    Until ALL private money is removed from elections and the law actually has the teeth to put both giver and receiver in jail, none of anything will change. The system is set up to keep the rich rich and us paying for their lives while ignoring our own needs.

    Keep up thinking that private money in politics is a good idea. And you will NEVER see a thing change, only that you lose more and more of what you need to survive. This IS a class war, folks, and we’re up against the most classless group in our society, the stinking rich. They are NEVER the solution to anything, they are, however, always profiting off of our misery and our misfortune. These people are the PROBLEM, NOT the solution. Pick a problem society or just the WORLD has, and I can show you how and who is profiting off of it and how YOU are getting screwed.

    Wake up folks. This is most DEFINITELY a war, and we’re getting our butts kicked. HARD. It’s time to return the favor, and removing all private money from elections is one of the FIRST ways. Just like the gangs and drug dealers, if you want to control them TAKE AWAY THE MONEY.

  8. john in denver, I fail to see the hypocrisy. As I recall, Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion that asserted that anonymous political speech is protected by the First Amendment, and therefore violated the constitutional principle of freedom of speech.

    Which is my point. Again, where the hypocrisy?

  9. Terry C, maybe you’re insane. President Trump was constitutionally elected President of the United States. Just because your terrible candidate lost doesn’t mean anyone is attempting to “overthrow of democracy in our country in favor of the fascism.”

    Besides, our form of government isn’t democracy, it’s a constitutional republic. In fact, one of the very few powers given to the federal government by our Constituion is:

    “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened), against domestic Violence.”
    Article IV, Section 4, United States Constitution

  10. CapitalistRoader.
    A republic is government by represesentation.

    Democracy (small d) is the system of electing those representatives, as outlined in our constitution. (Government by the people and for the people.)

    Oh, and yes, the president was duly elected by a minority of voters.

    We have a hybrid government, best described as a democratic-republic.

    The fact that you dispute this is proof that you hate democracy. I imagine you’d be fine with repealing the 17th amendment. Fascists HATE the 17th amendment AND one-person, one vote. Am I right?

    Are you in favor of a constitutional convention, and if so, what do you want to change?

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