Home Virginia Politics Will Dark Money Groups Stop Virginia Campaign Finance Reform?

Will Dark Money Groups Stop Virginia Campaign Finance Reform?

Right-Wing Political Advocacy Group Americans for Prosperity Organization Lobbies Against a Disclosure Bill

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From BigMoneyOutVA:

Will Dark Money Groups Stop Virginia Campaign Finance Reform?
Americans for Prosperity Organization Lobbies Against a Disclosure Bill

Dark money groups don’t want Virginians to know who’s really funding ads attacking or supporting an issue or candidate in our elections. The Virginia Sunshine Bill would require “independent expenditure” ads to disclose the top individual funders behind them. Indicating how effective this legislation could be, representatives of the right-wing political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, testified against it at the January 17th Virginia Senate Privileges and Elections Committee hearing. Nevertheless, the bill was reported out of committee and passed the Senate January 23.

Sen. Barbara Favola introduced the Virginia Sunshine Bill (SB854), and Del. Dan Helmer is introducing the House companion bill (HB1551). The proposed legislation broadens disclaimer requirements for ads deemed independent expenditures, i.e. election ads that are not made in coordination with any candidates. These disclosure bills before our legislature this legislative session would require that issue ads, funded by dark money groups, list their top three donors in the ad and report this information to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Nearly 90 percent of Virginians say they want full disclosure of donors paying to influence state elections. The 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court opened the back door to money moving through independent, and often obscure, channels to influence our elections. Funding entities are sometimes required to file donation information with the Federal Elections Commission or to state regulatory agencies. However, often it is not clear who is actually behind these ads. At the same time as ruling in favor of Citizens United, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 in favor of financial disclosure, with the justices emphasizing the importance of full transparency to prevent corruption. Justice Scalia strongly supported disclosure laws, writing that “[r]equiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” In fact, the SCOTUS precedence for disclosure still stands as the Court has repeatedly recognized that campaign finance disclosure laws serve a critical role in creating an informed electorate.

Americans for Prosperity argued, in response to Sen. Favola’s bill, that corporations and deep monied special interests “need privacy to support their election issues of interest.” They cited the 1958 NAACP-Alabama case safeguarding that group’s right of association and privacy to protect individuals from severe racial discrimination and violence of the Civil Rights Era. Fossil fuel interests, corporations, and special interest groups trying to influence our elections in the 21st century do not face the same threats. Are they afraid of Virginia voters knowing who they are? They highlight the role of money as speech but fall back on the argument that their speech needs to be private to protect themselves.

To this argument, which was echoed by Sen. Jill Vogel, Sen. Favola responded “No,” saying that the right of privacy of wealthy donors and any inconvenience of revealing funding sources of these organizations was outweighed by the greater public good. Sen. Favola is right to stand up for voters who need to know who is influencing their elections. This legislation doesn’t reduce donors’ right to speech; it simply discloses it to public scrutiny.

The Senate version of the bill was passed on a party-line vote, 21-17. Last year, a similar bill picked up some bipartisan backing when four Republicans supported it. This year, dark money succeeded in peeling off votes as Americans for Prosperity lobbied legislators. The Republican Senate members who changed their votes this year were Senators Hanger, Suetterlein, and Peake.  This Senate bill will cross over to the House on February 7th, but Delegate Helmer’s bill is currently stalled in committee. Will our legislators vote to protect obscure dark money donors who are trying to influence our elections? Don’t they think that Virginians have a right to know who is funding ads on our airways and the internet? Virginians are calling for a light to be turned on dark money funding of advertisements; donors shouldn’t be allowed to protect themselves from public scrutiny.

Virginians, call on your legislators to support transparency and ask them to pass SB854/HB1551.

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BigMoneyOutVA is a non-partisan group which champion good governance and transparency in Virginia, while promoting increased public discourse between citizens of the Commonwealth and their legislators. Follow us on Twitter: @MoneyOutVA

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