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Without Election Regulation, Massachusetts Steels Itself for Onslaught of Dark Money

 

Super PACs are quietly forming to influence the Massachusetts' races for governor and other state elections in 2014, and if state lawmakers can't pass a campaign finance disclosure bill soon, these outside groups will be free to spend unlimited sums without disclosing their donors in real time. Worse yet, corporations could spend unlimited sums to influence election outcomes without ever disclosing their spending. The legislature's Massachusetts Disclosure Act addresses these loopholes, but it must pass soon to have any effect.

The consequences for inaction are serious and obvious. During the 2010 state elections, the first since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United allowed for unlimited election spending by Super PACs and corporations, independent political groups dropped close to $12 million. A mere 4% disclosed their donors.

Unfortunately, a bill to shine a light on this “dark money” in 2012 has not made it to the Governor’s desk despite passing unanimously in the Senate and despite strong urging from Common Cause, the Boston Globe editorial board and others.

Outside groups capitalized. In 2013, they spent $4 million on the Boston mayoral election (around 5% disclosed their donors). With open races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, we’re sure to see even more of this dark money spending in 2014 (a peek at a few current special elections in the legislature where outside groups are nearly outspending the candidates themselves reveals as much).

Five new Super PACs have recently filed statements of organization to influence elections this year with names as vague as “Mass” and mission statements as vague as “communicate with voters about gubernatorial candidates prior to the November 2014 election.” A host of others remain active from previous elections. But unless the law changes, we may not know who the interests are behind these shadowy organizations until after the election is over, if ever.

Voters deserve the right to know the interests trying to influence their votes and curry favor with our elected officials. Real time and comprehensive disclosure allows voters to “judge [political] contributions based on the actual identities of donors as opposed to the pretty names involving kids, families and patriotism used to disguise them.” We can’t put a stop to this flood of special interest money without an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but at the very least we can demand a modicum of transparency. 

As the Boston Globe wrote following the Boston mayoral election, “legislative leaders should make sure the bill passes this time, lest another important Massachusetts election be influenced by outside spending whose sources aren’t entirely clear.”

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