The concern about dark money and its ability to change our elections is a bipartisan phenomenon.

In America, massive amounts of money are being spent on campaign advocacy, and it’s totally hidden from voters. While you can’t see it, dark money has a huge influence on our elections. Millions of dollars are spent on promotional videos and other media without anyone knowing who is funding them. Advertisements gain votes, making the entire electorate a tool wielded by unknown donors.

The good news is that there are actually ways to trace dark money—even if you’re not an investigative journalist. All you need is an internet connection, a computer, and a curious mind.

Here’s what dark money is, how you can trace it, and how you can use your research to hold politicians accountable.

What Exactly is Dark Money?

Dark money is the wealth that flows through shadowy shell companies, such as LLCs or politically active nonprofits, and into a campaign. There is no limit on how much money undisclosed donors can give to these shell companies, so the funds aggregate and are then given to either a super PAC or used immediately for advertising.

The money will sometimes flow through a super PAC before it is used for marketing.

This is by no means a recent development. Dark money entered politics with Buckley v Valeo, which was a Supreme Court ruling in the 1970s that claimed spending money on behalf of a political candidate or political party is a form of protected speech.

You may also be familiar with the more recent 2010 case, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections is protected by the First Amendment.

Under federal law, dark money is technically legal. But it’s being used to give outsized influence to people based on their ability to give massive financial contributions, so we can’t turn a blind eye.

How You Can Trace Dark Money

While there is no comprehensive federal finance accountability legislation in place yet, there are some backdoor methods that can be used to put names to these mystery donors. Here is a list of tactics to track dark money expenditures:

  1. Researching IRS Form 990s using Guidestar
  2. Searching Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings to find details of corporate contributions
  3. Cross referencing “voluntary corporate filings” (which are neither standardized nor comprehensive)
  4. Searching news articles for relevant information
  5. Explore Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings
  6. Labor union disclosures

Issue One, OpenSecrets, and PBS are all organizations that have conducted extensive research into dark money, scratching the surface to reveal the biggest spenders. By using the methods above, Issue One created a chart showing the top dark money spenders.

This chart shows the amount of dark money spent by each organization. Organizations of all political affiliations are present, which shows that both parties are at the root of this issue.

As you can see, the biggest spender of dark money is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The largest lobbying group in the U.S, it has poured undisclosed funds into elections. Take for example, the Pennsylvania Senate race between Pat Toomey (R-Incumbent) and Kate McGinty (D). Party politics aside, this is the most expensive race in U.S. history, and we don’t know the source of all their funds.

While this research can reveal which groups use dark money, it doesn’t show us which individuals are writing big checks to them. The question remains: who is holding our elections in the palm of their hands?

Putting an End to Dark Money

There are multiple ways our government could force transparency on campaign spending. Congress could pass tougher disclosure laws, or the Federal Election Commission could better enforce existing campaign finance laws. But there is no reason to wait around for federal legislation to pass. We can pass transparency laws at the city and state level now.

It’s our right to know who is financing political advertisements that promote candidates for office or the passage of new laws at the ballot. Unlimited funds pour from unknown donors, to super PACs, to advertising—meaning that the wealthiest people and organizations in the country are anonymously controlling what messages we receive, and ultimately, who is being elected.

Use the strategies outlined here to trace dark money, when you are trying to decide which campaigns to support, and which non-profits you want to join.

Our elections should not be so heavily influenced by donors who stay in the shadows. And ultimately, this issue affects people across the political spectrum. From liberals, to moderates, to conservatives, we need to demand transparency in our communities.

Once enough cities and states pass transparency laws, we can force change at the federal level.

Until then, follow the money.

This issue crosses partisan lines and unites us.
About Laura Fanatico
As an Organizing Fellow at RepresentUs, Laura coordinates volunteers and facilitates grassroots events as well as creating content that highlights anti-corruption reform. Her work focuses on how the American people can, in their day to day lives, radically transform policy and lifestyle to fight for a true democracy.
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