BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This presidential election demonstrates a stunningly obvious truth. Money does not inevitably translate into votes. But that's presidential races. Local elections can be bought. And in terms of real impact on our lives, these are the elections that matter the most.
The Brennan Center for Justice analyzed data from six states – Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts - and tracked the rise of outside spending, that is, money gathered and spent independent of the campaign, after the High Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to anonymous cash. Here are the Brennan Center’s two key findings. One, dark money, meaning we don't know where it came from, surged in these states by 38 times, on average, between 2006 and 2014, in fact, even more than in national campaigns, and two, on average, only 29 percent of outside spending in those states was fully transparent in 2014, down sharply from 76 percent in 2006. Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center. He says that as statehouse reporters dwindle, we all have to pay more attention to our states.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Decisions made at the state and local level affect everything under the sun, and so much of the explosion in unaccountable big money has actually happened at the state and local level. You don’t need to be a Koch brother to be a kingmaker at the local level.
It’s just a lot cheaper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It can be as cheap as $100,000.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Or even less for a county council race or something like that. And scrape away the layers of secrecy, dig deep into who’s really paying for these campaigns, very often it's some business that wants a permit, some firm that wants to buy a utility commission or affect an attorney general - the grubby old-fashioned transactional campaign finance obscured from the public by the ability to do this dark money spending.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Distinguish for me between dark money and something that the Brennan Center calls “gray money.”
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Dark money refers to undisclosed campaign contributions and spending, very often through basically phony nonprofits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Citizens for Citizens.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Citizens for Citizens. “Gray money” is a phrase we coined to describe a new and disturbing phenomenon. Even the much reviled and appropriately reviled super PACs have to actually disclose who’s giving the money. But when you look closely, many of them get their money from other PACs, who get their money from other PACs. Even Sam Spade would have a hard time figuring out who's behind some of these super PAC ads.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. I love the story about John Swallow, the former attorney general of Utah.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Who is on trial for something else.
John Swallow was a candidate for attorney general of Utah, and it turned out that a lot of funding in the race secretly came from payday lenders, so they wouldn’t face scrutiny from the state attorney general, about a $450,000 donation for attack ads that were really coordinated with his campaign.
ANNOUNCER: Sean Reyes, skirting the campaign laws, not the ethics we need for attorney general.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: He knew it and the company knew it, just the public didn’t know it. In Wisconsin, hundreds of thousands of dollars were poured into a state legislative race, and it turned out it was from an out-of-state mining company targeting the legislature because they didn't want to give speeded-up mine permits.
This year, we’re all mesmerized by the presidential election. You had Jeb Bush blowing through $100 million dollars in super PAC money, so people look and say, see, maybe all this worry about big money isn’t really as bad as people thought it was. But it turns out, when you go one or two levels down, where there isn't this white-hot national scrutiny on the election, not only is money having a massive impact on elections, the spending of the money is much more often in secret.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, we are talking about quid pro quo, the exact thing that the Supreme Court Citizens United decision said you had to prove. You could prove it again and again in these local elections, but the problem is, as your study points out, these are low-information races. A citizen isn't even likely to know the name of a candidate that's running and, if the citizen does, chances are they will have heard it through an ad.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: We need to know who's paying for the ads, so we can know who's influencing policy. When the Supreme Court issued the Citizens United decision in 2010, they said, well, all this spending can't possibly be corrupting, for two reasons. One is it's all disclosed and the other is it’s really independent of these public officials. And I always like to quote Chico Marx, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes” you know?
That’s not the real world any of us live in. First of all, we know the spending very often is not really independent, whether it's sharing consultants, secret meetings or even a wink and a nod. The other thing is increasingly it’s not disclosed at all. It wasn’t always Citizens United. It was a web of other decisions. It was the fact that the IRS has not been cracking down on these phony nonprofits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the FEC is fully staffed and up and running, right? [LAUGHS]
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Oh, the, the FEC has been in gridlock for about 30 years. The Federal Election Commission was designed not to work. It's three Democrats and three Republicans. Right now, the Republicans are simply on strike. They are refusing to do anything and enforce any of the laws, so bit by bit the edifice of campaign laws has been allowed to evaporate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think people really care about transparency?
MICHAEL WALDMAN: It’s pretty clear this year that the voters are angry about a system they see not working for them. They feel, as we hear from people in all different parties, that it’s rigged. Citizens United is probably the most single unpopular Supreme Court decision in both parties in decades. So at the federal level, there was legislation brought to the floor of the United States Senate, after Citizens United, to require disclosure of much more political spending, and it was filibustered by the Republicans.
You are starting to see in some states stronger laws. California has had a big explosion in spending by outside groups, by PACs. It’s got very tough disclosure laws, and so there's very little dark or gray money in California.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hm. Do you think that this will happen at the local level first or on the state level and then finally percolate up? MICHAEL WALDMAN: In the United States, change often comes from the states, first. There is a great deal of voter agitation about these democracy issues, ballot initiatives on campaign finance where the public is really ahead of the politicians. And there's even actions that could be taken right this second at the federal level. President Barack Obama could sign an executive order requiring all federal contractors to disclose all their political spending, including donations to nonprofits that are really fronts for campaign ads. He could do this executive order and he still has the cap on the pen.
I think everybody should be asking these politicians, as they’re running for office, what are you gonna do about dark money, what are you gonna do about gray money, what are you gonna do about the role of money in politics? This is our chance, in these months before the election, to try to bring some sunlight into the process through our votes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] I do believe I see stars in your eyes.
Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL WALDMAN: Thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice. The Center’s new report is called, "Secret Spending in the States.”