In Our View: Shine Light on ‘Dark Money’

Let’s see who’s influencing elections, politics with major, secret donations

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Government transparency is a nonpartisan idea worthy of support by any lawmaker who places the public good above self-interest. When legislators return to Olympia next month, they should be quick to back a bill that would shine light on “dark money” in politics.

Under campaign finance law, nonprofit groups are not required to reveal the names of donors, even when that money eventually goes to political campaigns. Political action committees must report donors, which leads to many politically involved organizations forming a nonprofit where it can work in relative secrecy. Hence, the term “dark money,” which allows unseen forces to influence the political discussion behind a veil of mystery.

A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission erected roadblocks to transparency in the election process, and Congress should work to overturn it. While such a recommendation is about as feckless as spitting in the wind, protections for voters are more likely to occur at the state level.

Because of that, State Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, has pre-filed Senate Bill 5991 to make the process less opaque. The bill would expose the top contributors to a nonprofit when that entity engages in political activity. All donors contributing $100,000 or more would be revealed, as would the top 10 contributors giving $10,000 or more. Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, is among 25 co-sponsors.

If all of this sounds familiar, that is because the Legislature nearly passed the bill in 2015. After unanimously passing the Senate, the legislation passed the House with a 65-32 vote after some minor tweaking. Because of the changes, it was sent back to the Senate, where Republican leaders tied it up with procedural motions. At the time, The Seattle Times wrote editorially, “The most plausible reason for the death of the Dark Money Elimination Act is that some business groups, which traditionally support Republicans, objected.”

The impact of dark money has been felt in Washington before. In 2013, a group called Working Washington contributed $250,000 to a $15-an-hour minimum-wage measure that passed in SeaTac, and investigators were unable to determine who donated to that effort. Candidates on both sides of the aisle have benefitted from contributions that are impossible to trace, leaving the public in the dark about who is financing campaigns.

Drip by drip, big money in elections is eroding our democracy. Last month’s race for a spot on the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners drew more than $1 million in donations, an amount that allowed candidates to pepper the airwaves with commercials that often obscured the issues involved. For a race that drew fewer than 53,000 votes, this is an absurd amount of money; when that money comes from unknown sources, it diminishes the process.

Increased transparency will not eliminate that big money, but it will help facilitate a more informed electorate and help improve the level of discourse. Voters have a right — and, indeed, a need — to know who is supporting which candidate or ballot measure, and why. Donors should have the courage to face public scrutiny over their support rather than being given safe haven under campaign laws.

Billig’s bill, which not long ago had strong bipartisan support, would make the process more orderly, transparent, and beneficial to voters. That should be attractive to both parties in Olympia.