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Study Spotlights Dark Money in Senate Races

a photo of Karl Rove on television
Flickr photo by Dutchlad

A new study out by Public Citizen today shows the true effect the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling is having on congressional races: floods of unlimited money, little to nothing in the way of accountability.

While roughly $190 million poured into the airwaves from super PACs and nonprofits, we will never know the source for nearly half of it. Dark money nonprofits, able to collect unlimited funds from corporations and individuals, do not have to disclose their donors, and these groups were out in full force on Election Day, dropping $90 million into top Senate races.

Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came in as the top two spenders. Together, these high rollers spent $55,537,862 on pro-GOP advertisements in Senate races. The two next closest groups, Patriot Majority and the League of Conservation Voters, each spent roughly $10 million combined. The study also showed dark money tends to favor the Republican Party. Of the top 20 dark money spenders, 15 supported GOP candidates, while four supported Democrats (one had an unknown ideology). While Republican and Democratic super PACs in these races spent roughly the same amount, pro-GOP dark money groups outspent their Democratic counterparts by more than $60 million.

Public Citizen’s study looked at races in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Of those states, Virginia experienced the highest volume of dark money with $19,868,241 spent, notably $5 million more than what was spent by super PACs. In Nevada, 77.3% of the total money spent by outside groups came from non-disclosing organizations.

“The effect of Citizens United has been to deny the public the opportunity to learn the identity of sponsors behind a large percentage of political ads,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “It is likely that the donors that have been kept secret are those that would be the most controversial, such as corporations seeking favors. Until Congress or agencies mandate disclosure, we will not know the truth. ”

While commonsense solutions to secret money in politics  like the DISCLOSE Act and Shareholder Protection Act have met fierce opposition in Congress, it’s important to remember that the U.S. Supreme Court based its Citizens United ruling on the idea that the donors would be revealed and accountable to the people.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Citizens United, “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.”

Our current situation, where nearly half of the money spent to influence Senate campaigns come seemingly from thin air, is certainly not the state of affairs envisioned by Justice Kennedy. And it’s not a state of affairs that most American’s deem tolerable. In a recent poll commissioned by the Corporate Reform Coalition, 81 percent of Americans responded that corporations should only spend money in politics if they disclose their contributions immediately.

As more dark money numbers roll out from the $6 billion dollar 2012 election the heat will be on lawmakers to stem the tide of secret money and return some sanity to our campaign finance system. Powerful corporate interests already exert disproportionate interests in Washington, and their grip on our democracy will only tighten without reforms that bring much needed transparency and accountability to the system. Tell Congress it’s time they start working for us now.

Flickr photo via Dutchlad