States and Cities Took on Secret Election Spending in 2017

Congress has spent much of the year imagining more ways to hide the true funders of already murkily financed political advertising, even though the vast majority of their constituents — across the political spectrum —  oppose dark money. That’s left the fight for transparency up to states and cities. And officials across the country have stepped up. Taken together, their efforts have formed a remarkable campaign to increase accountability from coast to coast.

In late November, a bipartisan group of Idaho lawmakers drafted a bill that would require spenders in local and state races to reveal more layers of funding and make public disclosures more frequently. If passed into law, the measure would require election advertisers to name their five biggest funders. If a funder were itself an organization that received contributions, that funder would have to disclose its top ten donors if it gave more than $1,000 in the crucial 15 days before an election. This multilayered disclosure would help reduce “gray money” — money that is routed through tiers of groups to conceal its true origin and dodge oversight.

One Republican legislator lamented that, without reform, mailboxes and radio broadcasts in Idaho would be “brimming with ads paid for by a single deep-pocketed donor,” displacing the kind of politics where candidates engage voters directly.

Like Idaho, more and more states and cities are moving to crack down on secret spending in elections — which has surged in the wake of Citizens United and related court decisions — while federal regulators remain mired in dysfunction. Without transparency, voters lack the information to fully evaluate political messages, and special interests can influence crucial electoral battles without public accountability. The stakes can be particularly high in state and local politics, because candidate elections and ballot referenda often determine policy outcomes with specific economic consequences.

This year, for instance, a…

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