Financing elections: Transparency vs the ‘gutless wonders of dark money’

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Last Fall I volunteered to become Treasurer for my local state legislators re-election campaign. This was a voluntary decision. Rep. JoAnn Ward is a stellar representative, taking her duty to represent all very seriously. I felt helping a little was the least I could do.

But the experience has not been without stumbles. Succinctly, I was to Campaign Treasurer, as a 1920s kid was to learning all the intricacies of the Model A Ford.

Even today I am not a full-service Treasurer. I am too old a dog to learn all of the requisite new tricks required in the technological age!

But by now, I’m fairly comfortable with the process and to a certain degree the technology I’m required to use.

One of the many things I’ve learned is that Minnesota Election Law mandates transparency.

If you donate, you’re known by the name on your contribution. You become an “entity”: your name and address on file within the state reporting system.

There is only a single exception that I know of: donations of $20 and below can be received as “anonymous”, and the Campaign Finance Board computer won’t kick them back. So it was that on Monday I had to enter the contents of several plain envelopes, with no markings, each including cash up to $20. (Such donations are infrequent, I’ve found.) People apparently know the rules. If somebody “anonymously” put a $50 bill in a plain envelope, how could I possibly return it? Nothing like that has happened, and probably won’t.

Similarly, if a contribution is $200 or more, the system demands to know the persons employer or work (“retired”, “homemaker” and such qualify as descriptors). Registered Lobbyists must reveal themselves and there are strict limits on how much lobbying money can be accepted by candidates.

In short, the system is pretty tight, and pretty fair: you enter the process and you are a known person.

So, “the Gutless Wonders of Dark Money”?

This morning the Al Franken campaign (U.S. Senator, Minnesota) sent the latest fund-raising appeal, beginning: “One “dark money” group, Hometown Freedom Action Network, just launched the largest attack against me yet — backed by $331,OOO in online ads.”

U.S. Senate is under Federal Campaign rules, and here comes the “wild west” of “freedom of speech” and playing games with Federal Law.

I looked up the dark money group, and two interesting sites are here and here. Both sites speak for themselves.

Hometown Freedom’s site does have a contact tab, but unless I’m missing something obvious, it is impossible to know anything about the group, who’s in it, where it’s located, etc.

It appears to be Minnesota based, and it is mostly out to take down Sen. Franken through television ads, which will be ubiquitous for the last couple of weeks of the campaign.

Of course, I don’t know the “facts”, because I’m not supposed to know the facts, but from all appearances it would be a tight coalition of likely wealthy Minnesotans who have pooled their resources to finance anti-Franken attack ads.

They don’t want anyone to know who they are.

(The second site, OpenSecrets.org, is helpful in identifying who Hometown Freedom’s money goes to help, or hurt….

At least for this time in history, “dark money” is a major player in Federal elections.

There’s time to continue talking about transparency after this election is over. Till then, if you watch the ads at all, look for the disclaimer which they are all required to carry. Most likely, as with Hometown Freedom, it will say, essentially, nothing.

I’ll give Sen. Franken the last word, again from his solicitation: “The term “dark money” sort of brings to mind the picture of a billionaire, sneering behind a desk in a creepy mansion, wringing his or her hands menacingly while funneling money into anonymous attacks against me…There’s no telling how much these dark money groups can squeeze out of their deep-pocketed backers to attack us with.”

I don’t think he’s far off in his analysis.