Montana Shines Light on Dark Money in Politics

Montana took a big step in the reform world today by shining a light on money in state politics. Residents can now view state campaign contribution reports immediately after publication, ensuring every voter and constituent knows who’s spending what to influence their ballots and their leaders. As non-statewide candidates are also now required to file finance reports, the Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl believes that, “We’re in a new era of transparency in Montana, and this reporting period demonstrated that era.”

A historically red state, Montana continues to lead the charge in campaign finance reform. Just last year, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers banned dark money spending in elections, one of many steps Montana has taken in recent years to reorient democracy back to Main Street.

Today, dark money 501(c)(4) groups dominate politics, and through shadowy and ill-specified regulations, they operate and donate without full public knowledge. And the FEC and IRS’s failure to crack down on these groups has opened a floodgate of millions of untracked and undisclosed spending. According to Public Citizen, 80 percent of Americans are opposed to dark-money groups non-disclosure practices, while 90 percent of business executives support disclose reforms, as found in a study conducted by the American Business Leaders on Campaign Finance Reform.

The best way to counteract the influence of dark money groups is by providing citizens with full and complete information on the nature of all cash flowing in and out of the system. As outlined in our Blueprints for Democracy report, it is crucial that “everyone knows,” as transparency is a major aspect necessary for comprehensive campaign finance reform. Disclosure laws would prohibit individuals from creating shadow organizations to use as a vehicle for campaign spending, while distinguishing between campaign contributions and issue advocacy.  And plenty of people agree, including former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), who repeatedly called for increased disclosure stating, “I think what we ought to do is… full disclosure of all the money that we raise and how it is spent.”

While transparency reforms would play a considerable role in solving this problem, it alone cannot fix the system. Additional reforms, such as citizen-funding of elections and a strong accountability system to hold people accountable for breaking these rules, are critical to any effective campaign finance reform agenda.