Finally, I've managed to hack into this account to post the following – a political piece I wrote for the Missoula Independent with one of my former professors last summer.
I'm transitioning to a new site (hence the forgotten password)! So all of my new published work will be posted there, along with my blog, at kettiwilhelm.com. Thanks for reading!
Looking for lightKetti Wilhelm and Dennis Swibold
Politics is a cheap game to play in Montana, thanks largely to “dark money,” a furtive type of campaign funding for which the state has a substantial claim to being the nation’s poster child. Liberal and conservative groups flooded Montana with funds from undisclosed donors in 2012, attracted by a high-stakes U.S. Senate race, relatively cheap TV ads and the low cost of reaching the state’s nearly 680,000 registered voters by mail.
According to ProPublica, almost a quarter of the $51 million or more spent in the 2012 Senate race came from issue-advocacy groups that do not disclose their contributors. The dark money—and the influence it represented—drew protests from Democrats and Republicans alike.
But efforts to shed light on dark money have fallen flat. During the state’s most recent legislative session, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, and Republican state Sen. Jim Peterson, a rancher from Buffalo, collaborated on the proposed Trace Act, which would have closed some disclosure loopholes. It died in committee without fanfare. Peterson and a small band of Republicans then vowed to take the fight directly to voters with Initiative 168, but they abandoned the campaign in June, saying they couldn’t raise enough money to collect signatures statewide.
While Montana’s far right has never supported dark money disclosure, organizers of I-168 were surprised to hear objections from liberal groups that typically support disclosure. Peterson says he reached out directly to potential supporters on the left, but couldn’t get any bites.
“Everybody says, ‘Yeah, I don’t like dark money,’ but when it comes time to raise the money to get the signatures ... people clam up,” he says.
Sandy Welch, a Republican and an organizer for the “Stop Dark Money” initiative, says her group sought support from across the political spectrum, yet managed to raise only about $20,000—a fraction of what it takes to bring an initiative to the ballot in such a large state.
“There are a lot of people who fund political activities who like dark money,” Welch says. “They don’t want it to go away.”
The organizers weren’t the only ones surprised at the initiative’s failure.
“Where were the organizations?” asks Anthony Johnstone, a professor of constitutional and election law at the University of Montana. “Where were the unions? Where was Common Cause? Where were the parties? Without that kind of support, you’re going to have a hard time qualifying an initiative, even on something so recently salient in Montana.”
Jonathan Motl, Montana’s commissioner of political practices, says he was disappointed but not surprised by I-168’s failure. He says Peterson’s decision to require disclosure for money spent on voter mobilization by nonpartisan nonprofits probably doomed the initiative before it got off the ground.
“In my opinion, that was added by Peterson in an effort to bring in some support for it from (conservative) groups, which weren’t going to support it anyway,” Motl says.
One of the people Peterson looked to for support was C.B. Pearson, a veteran organizer of ballot initiative campaigns. Pearson spearheaded the 2012 “corporate personhood” ballot measure, which passed with 75 percent approval in protest of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. But Pearson says he couldn’t support the Stop Dark Money initiative and agreed with Motl, saying the inclusion of all nonprofits would have forced disclosure on the League of Women Voters and other groups that encourage voting, but refrain from endorsing candidates or ballot issues.
“I just don’t think you can regulate that,” Pearson says. “There’s a right to participate.”
The Missoula-based Forward Montana would have been in the same boat. But under Montana law, nonprofits that do endorse specific candidates, including unions and groups such as Montana Conservation Voters, are already required to disclose their contributors.
Had the measure focused solely on disclosure for the issue-advocacy groups, it might have had a chance, Pearson says. He adds that when people lament the effects of dark money, they’re usually thinking about the nasty, anonymous, third-party attack ads.
“I don’t think anybody likes the third-party stuff at all,” he says.
As Montana’s chief elections watchdog, Motl says dark money still needs to be exposed because it undermines the public’s trust in the political process, which in turn erodes faith in government. He adds that his office is working on legislation that would require disclosure by issue-advocacy groups, which are often the perpetrators of anonymous attack ads.
Campaign finance reform remains a hot issue at the federal level. Newly nominated Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis has said campaign finance reform will be her top priority if she’s elected. And the Federal Communications Commission recently began requiring all TV stations to post their political ad sales data online.
Progress hasn’t been so forthcoming locally, but I-168’s organizers say they hope the short-lived campaign at least helped educate voters about dark money. Welch expects the issue to resurface in the Montana Legislature next year. Peterson, who is limited by law from seeking a fourth consecutive term in the Senate, says he isn’t sure the idea will receive better treatment in future sessions.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I hope so, but I think they’re going to run into the same problem I did.”
Even so, he adds, it’s a fight worth taking on because dark money plays an outsized role in Montana, especially in down-ballot races, such as legislative contests.
“Montana’s a cheap place to play,” Peterson says, adding that $20,000 can have significant influence in a state Senate race, as $10,000 can in a state House contest.
“If you’re going to bring integrity back into the political process,” he says, “you’re going to have to do something about dark money.”