As the 2016 election season heats up, there is little doubt that dark money will once again dominate and distort the electoral process. In fact, the system through which candidates secure unlimited contributions from anonymous donors seems more sophisticated than ever, with total donations likely to rival the $600 million that flooded the previous three election cycles combined.
Nearly half the Republican presidential hopefuls have already lined up “independent” nonprofit organizations to bolster their candidacies—flagrantly running afoul of Internal Revenue Service rules that say politics can’t be the primary purpose of such groups. Conservative candidates for president and Congress are groveling before the Koch brothers and the wealthy donors to their dark-money group Freedom Partners. The US Chamber of Commerce is raising gushes of money from corporations seeking to influence lawmakers without exposing their identities to shareholders or consumers. And as it has done in previous election cycles, the Chamber is poised to link arms with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads network to keep both houses of Congress in Republican control.
About these groups’ secret spending, the IRS will do precisely nothing. Hounded by the right, which whipped up a faux scandal out of a clumsy attempt by overwhelmed staff to police groups with “Tea Party” in their names, the tax agency recently decided not to even try to rein in such blatantly out-of-bounds activity.
Even the best hope for sunlight—that President Obama will sign an executive order mandating disclosure for government contractors—would still leave many corporate donors free to buy influence via campaign ads.
While the entrenchment of dark-money groups supplies good reason to despair for democracy, some forward-looking activists have seized the moment as ripe for a counteroffensive. Important opportunities are taking shape at the grassroots, responding to corporate speech with public speech, countering TV ad blitzes with voter-to-voter outreach, matching big-dollar donors with scads of small contributors, and replacing a passive electorate with an active, empowered citizenry.
None of these efforts is a substitute for the actions we urgently need from the Federal Election Commission and Congress. Ultimately, the government must restore transparency by compelling disclosure of wealthy corporations and individuals that buy political influence in the guise of voter education. But change has to start somewhere. Here are the five most promising strategies to shine some light on dark money in 2016 and beyond:
Shareholder resolutions: On those rare occasions when a company’s fingerprints surface on a dark-money donation, odds are that the enterprise is a publicly traded corporation. Take the insurance giant Aetna, which gave nearly $4.5 million to the US Chamber of Commerce in 2011—empowering the same group that had routed Democratic incumbents with vicious attack ads slamming them for their votes in support of the Affordable Care Act.