Allowing big-time campaign donors to remain anonymous has changed the political landscape in Kansas and nationwide.
The 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on ads or other political tools that either support or attack candidates, with no requirement for disclosure of donors.
Advocates called the court decision a victory for free speech. Rather, it undermined transparency and accountability, diminished the impact of other donors who could not be anonymous and made it more difficult to follow the money.
U.S. tax code allows nonprofit, tax-exempt groups to operate as social welfare organizations and collect and spend dollars on political advocacy, so long as they don’t spend more than half on political activity.
The National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood recently got even more of a break in being able to offer donors and recipients alike an opportunity to contribute and accept unlimited sums of money without being known.
The use of the “dark money” strategy also has been prevalent in Kansas from groups of all political persuasions.
Organizations with ties to the Koch brothers were instrumental in a 2012 effort to change the face of the Kansas Legislature and enact policies more in keeping with the Kochs’ small-government, free-market philosophy. Operating through organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, ultraconservatives took advantage of “dark money” in paying for attack ads that helped drive many centrist lawmakers who resisted the far-right agenda from the Statehouse.
More recently, moderate Republicans and Democrats who’d been targeted fought back with the same strategy through organizations such as the Save Kansas Coalition, which also accepted funds from anonymous donors and could counter the flood of postcards and TV attack ads from the ultraconservative camp. It worked, with moderates bolstering their ranks in 2016 in particular.
But the problem, regardless of who’s involved, is in the public not knowing who’s responsible for the seemingly never-ending negative advertising. No one can be held accountable for deliberately misleading messages.
Third-party organizations spending significant sums without identifying donors is a disservice to citizens who should know who’s paying to influence elections — and cause for policymakers to pursue campaign finance reform that shelves the strategy and shines needed light on the process.