Wealthy special interests spend millions to persuade you to vote their way. If you respect them and believe their way is also good for you, their persuasion will work. If not, they’ve wasted their money on you. But many donors, including corporations, prefer to be anonymous for business, political, or other reasons. That’s called dark money. Fortunately, North Dakota law supports our right to know and requires reporting almost all campaign funding sources. Almost.
Case in point: Gov. Burgum gave nearly $2 million to his Dakota Leadership PAC, using it on campaign ads for selected Republicans running against other Republicans. This is not dark money; it shows how transparency helps democracy work. Transparency allows us to have a public discussion about his goals, the impact of large political donations, and his unusual spending plan. With transparency we can raise issues, debate them, and make better decisions.
The governor did not have to put himself out there. Thanks to a loophole in campaign finance law, he could have acted in secret. He could instead have formed a political nonprofit, given it an appealing name like Sound Government or Fair Taxes, collected and spent unlimited money, and reported the details to no one, as long as the group put its name on the ad and did not coordinate with a candidate or ballot campaign. Called Super PACs, independent expenditure committees, or C4 or C6 committees, their donors are not reported. Though foreign donations are illegal, they may never be known. Dark money, indeed.
If voters are vigilant in November, the loophole in transparency law will close after Jan. 4, 2022. All independent expenditure committees operating in North Dakota must then disclose their “ultimate and true source of funds” promptly and online. The new Article 14 Ethics Amendment of the state Constitution, which voters approved as Measure 1 in the 2018 election, requires it.
But there’s a catch. The 2019 Legislature made laws in House Bill 1521 that sabotage the transparency requirement. They must fix this in 2021 to prevent more needless lawsuits at taxpayers’ expense.
To open the curtain on political influencers and avoid wasting your tax dollars, support candidates who pledge to make dark money illegal, as the Constitution and their oath of office requires. Make sure they know what full transparency means.