More Money, More Power, More Speech: The Political Influence Of Dark Money

Aug 24, 2018

This past week President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a multitude of charges, including falsifying submissions to a bank and campaign finance violations. Campaign finance regulations are considered by many to be among the most pressing issues affecting American democracy, but it can be hard for the average citizen to understand them.

READ: Donald Trump's Attorney & Fixer Michael Cohen Pleads Guilty To 8 Federal Counts

A new documentary, "Dark Money," seeks to change that. Dark money is money spent on political campaigns with roots that are sometimes impossible to trace, often coming from various corporations or 501 (c)(4) organizations. The film follows John Adams, a Montana journalist and Wisconsin native, in his efforts to expose the effects of the Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United, and its connection to dark money groups involved in local and federal elections there.

Montana has had a push-pull between outside corporate interests and internal politics for more than a century according to "Dark Money" director and producer, Kimberly Reed. "Montana has a really interesting history of dealing with corporate influence in politics as a state that has a lot of natural resources and not a lot of people there," she says. "For its entire history, it's been subject to control of outside money that comes in, wants to develop natural resources and then wants to leave without cleaning up after the inevitable mess that is created with that development."

"With more money comes more power and more speech — that's just how it works."

Here in Wisconsin, potential campaign finance violations were at the heart of the so-called John Doe II case involving Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and outside groups in 2011 and 2012. 

"It really distorts democracy," says Reed. "It takes power out of the hands of political parties, it certainly takes power out of the hands of everyday individuals, and it puts it into the hands of just a couple wealthy people."

"That's really the role of this film, to show how this scheme works so that we can call people's attention to it and show them how these dots are really connected," Reed adds.

Systems are increasingly becoming more powerful than the political parties themselves as super PACs (political action committees) and dark money are used interchangeably. But Reed says the best thing we can do as citizens to hinder the influence of dark money is to "just follow the source of the funding as much as you can."

Reed offers some helpful tips:

  • Watch out for last minute negative ads (television, online, mailers): "It's probably run by some organization with some lofty, patriotic-sounding name. You can probably bet that there's some obfuscation behind it."
  • Work to ensure state and local elections have transparency: "The most important thing that people need to do is to make sure that we have disclosure laws on the books in our localities, and that we actually enforce them and hold our elected officials accountable ... You can actually have really significant effects at the state and local level, too."
  • Put on the bipartisan pressure: "The best way to show that pressure to our elected officials in Washington D.C., and frankly to the Supreme Court, is to show that the average, everyday voter is just demanding that we get our elections back in order. That we know where the money is coming from that's trying to influence this massive amount of political power that we have in American elections."

Dark Money opens in Milwaukee at the Oriental Theatre Friday.