Taking on Dark Money Post-Citizens United

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Election season has overtaken the United States once again, with this year’s presidential race shaping up to be the most intriguing in modern memory. Anti-establishment candidates have captivated primary voters on both sides of the aisle, winning states and proving their overall staying power as the general election nears.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has run his campaign almost entirely based on small-donor fundraising, which received more than three million donations from about 1.3 million people as of January.

By pure dollar numbers, his Democratic primary opponent Hillary Clinton has him beat–the former Secretary of State raised $114 million in 2015 compared to Sanders’ $75 million–but roughly 70 percent of donations to Sanders’ campaign have come from small donors. Sanders raised $20 million in January in this year alone, and his campaign claims the donations received average out to $27 apiece.

“It’s a good example of how small-dollar fundraising is a really powerful mode of campaigning,” says Jay Costa, executive director of CounterPAC, a nonpartisan campaign finance reform organization.

Ironically, one of Sanders’ main platforms for election is campaign finance reform, taking aim at Citizens United, the famed 2010 Supreme Court case that prevents the federal government from controlling or restricting political donations from corporations and political action committees (PACs).

Perhaps unintentionally, Sanders has proved through his individual donor-based campaign that there can be a viable counterbalance to the big money shelled out to candidates via Super PACs. Costa agrees, but believes it’s not necessarily sustainable or even possible for many candidates.

“Under the current system, it requires a lot more work on the candidate’s part to do that kind of fundraising,” Costa tells BTRtoday. “While it’s possible to run a successful small dollar campaign, you see so many candidates gravitate toward big money strategies because when you have to raise millions and millions of dollars, that’s a more efficient way to do it.”

CounterPAC’s mission is to spread information about the issue of outside spending on political campaigns. The organization zeroes in on competitive congressional races and urges candidates to come to agreements that block and disincentivize the acceptance of outside spending from Super PACs and other large donors. They’ve modeled their pledge agreements after one that was reached during the 2012 Massachusetts Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren.

“The two candidates came together and came to an agreement,” Costa explains. “They promised if a SuperPAC spends money to support either of their campaigns—either by running a positive ad for the candidate it chose to support, or a negative ad attacking the other candidate—then whichever candidate benefitted from that expenditure would promise to take money out of their own campaign account to offset the support they’d just received.”

The agreement worked extremely well, keeping 93 percent of SuperPAC and outside spending out of the race, and cutting the amount of negative advertising in half.

“Virtually all Super PAC spending and outside spending goes to buying attack ads,” Costa says. “So there were some really great results from that particular case.”

CounterPAC has proven that model can work when pressure is applied to candidates and voters buy in. The organization brokered a pledge agreement during the 2014 congressional election for West Virginia’s 3rd district between Evan Jenkins and 19-term incumbent Nick Rahall.

When Rahall eventually reneged on the agreement, CounterPAC called him on it, running advertisements that highlighted his choice to accept dark money that was unaccountable to voters. Jenkins went on to win the campaign by nearly nine percentage points.

CounterPAC created pledges for two other elections during the 2014 cycle, and the organization is currently scoping out potential involvement in 2016 races. Costa believes that these pledge agreements can play an important role in elections where outside spending is a big unknown.

“You never really know when some shady Super PAC is going to swoop into the race in the last month with ads attacking your campaign,” Costa says. “These pledges are really a valuable tool for candidates in competitive congressional races to neutralize that uncertainty.”

Despite their potential benefit, the pledges have been used as rhetorical devices in some instances, such as a given candidate attacking an opponent on their unwillingness to sign the agreement.

Given the current political environment, even Costa understands the reticence of candidates to enter into pledge agreements and turn away large donations from Super PACs, corporations, and unions.

“Candidates make their decisions just like any other self-interested agent,” Costa says. “They’re doing whatever they deem to be in their best self-interest, in this case that being what will help them win their campaign. So if a candidate believes that outside groups are going to be supporting their campaign, it’s unlikely they’ll forgo that support and give their opponent some sort of an advantage.”

If there’s one place where small-donor funded campaigns have gained traction, it’s New York City. The city’s Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB) oversees its Matching Funding Program, under which donations to candidates from small contributors are matched at a $6-to-$1 rate, giving voters across the city a louder electoral voice. The program also aims to encourage regular citizens, who might normally be intimidated by the money and political connections needed to campaign, to run for public office.

The program has thrived in the city—during the 2013 cycle, the NYCCFB doled out more than $38 million in public campaign funds. About two-thirds of contributions to candidates came from city residents, and 92 percent of the total money raised during elections came from individuals rather than PACs or unions.

A spokesman from the New York City Campaign Finance Board explains to BTRtoday that the city’s program works because it creates the right incentives for donors and candidates alike, and has been well-established in practice and widely publicized to city voters.

The Matching Funds Program has proven to be a model for municipalities across the country, as cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago have created their own programs to promote individual contribution encouragement. For that kind of change to occur at a national level, though, organizations like CounterPAC will have to continue plugging away, using the allure of accountability in an attempt to curtail the influence of big money.

“Part of what attracts us to these pledges we’re working for is that they have a chance to serve as models,” Costa explains. “We’re almost trying to create those models of what an overturned Citizens United would look like, even if it’s only a few races at a time.”

Money and politics are inevitably linked, and although there will always be people and organizations seeking to influence the political process, Costa believes that awareness can be raised to reduce the influence of big money contributors and amplify the impact of average American voters.

“The key we need to be working for is a constant attention to how money is affecting the political process, and efforts to keep that influence well-regulated,” Costa says. “I think we can find a better balance so that voices of voters are being heard more equally.”