Michigan elections increasingly influenced by ‘dark money’

By ELIZABETH FERGUSON
Capital News Service

LANSING — A growing number of Michigan political campaigns are being influenced by independent groups raising and spending unlimited funding, with donors not always disclosed to the public.

More money than ever was raised for the 2014 state elections, topping the previous record in 2006. The top 150 Political Action Committees raised a total of $68 million, over 30 percent more than the $51.9 million raised in the 2006 election cycle, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan network researches money in Michigan politics and works to expose anonymous funding, also called “dark money.”

“Much of that money is dark money,” said Susan Smith of Ann Arbor, president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan. “You don’t know who is providing the funding, so you don’t know who is influencing the vote.”

Groups funding advertisements related to campaigns can remain anonymous under a 2013 Michigan law that separates issue advertisements from campaign advertisements.

Issue advertisements advocate interests like education funding or tax policies. An issue advertisement might promote an interest related to a candidate, but as long as ads don’t explicitly ask viewers to support or oppose a candidate, the disclosure of donor names isn’t required.

Ballots can also lack transparency. Michigan judicial candidates are nominated by political parties, but ballots do not state which party a judicial candidate was nominated by.

“A tremendous amount of money is spent on the Supreme Court races along with all the other races,” Smith said.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is pushing to improve transparency in campaign funding.

“Transparency reforms in campaign finance would give the general public more confidence in their government, now that they could see who’s spending money to influence public policy,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the network.

The increase in campaign funding and anonymous donors began with the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission that allowed super PACS to raise and spend unlimited amounts.

While regular Political Action Committees contribute funds directly to a candidate’s campaign and face donation limits, super PACs can spend unlimited amounts to aid a candidate by creating issue advertisements or other indirect support.

Robinson said the Citizens United decision took a few years to show effect, but now the number of super PACs is growing, resulting in much higher contribution amounts.

In 2012, 11 of the top-spending PACs were super, but in 2014 super PACs made up half of the 40 top-spending PACs, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Increased political groups and donations are a good thing, said Michigan Republican Party Research Director Diana Bates, who says the trend demonstrates a rise in the number of individuals interested and supportive of the political process.

“Campaign funding is simply a tool to help communicate with voters,” Bates said in an email. “It is the means by which our candidates promote their issues and tell their own stories that help voters make their decisions on Election Day.”

The Michigan Republican Party will always see a need to increase fundraising, as the party is a main supporter of Republican campaigns, Bates said.

Increased campaign funds affect who wins elections. Nearly every Michigan election since 2000 has been won by the candidate with the most funds, Robinson said.

“In order to be a serious candidate, you have to be able to raise money,” Robinson said, “Or else you’re just not taken legitimately.”

If candidates are unable to gain competitive funding and only intend to raise and spend less than $1,000, they can formally fill out a waiver to make the state and public aware of their situation.

But Robinson said over 150 state legislative candidates did this in 2014 and were unable to win.

“As more and more money is spent by special interests in an attempt to influence elections, the voice and influence of the individual voter decreases,” Smith said in an email.

The League of Women Voters of Michigan works with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network to hold community forums where the public can discuss campaign funding issues, Smith said.

The League has been advocating reform for laws that allow donors to stay anonymous and will continue to lobby for this issue this session, Smith said.

“The more we can try to educate the public,” Smith said, “the more likely that we can have some influence in the legislature and change the campaign finance laws here in Michigan.”

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