Political Ads — July 28, 2012 at 9:19 am

It’s a sunny day: new rules impacting secret money in our elections go into effect today


Here’s to a little sunshine shining in

Starting today, supposedly nonpartisan groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS are going to have to change their ways or reveal who their donors are. And revealing who their donors are is something that they simply will not do.

Last March, I wrote about a lawsuit filed against the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) by Rep. Chris Van Hollen. The resulting case, Van Hollen v. FEC, challenged a 2007 FEC ruling allowing for secret funding of 501(c)(4) organizations. I wrote about it because U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson had thrown out the FEC ruling that allowed some funders of political ads to remain anonymous.

Today, new rules go into effect and they are a BFD.

Andrew Kroll at Mother Jones has the details:

[C]ome Saturday, the dark-money nonprofits face a dilemma. A high-profile court case known as Van Hollen v. FEC threatens to shine an unwelcome beam of sunlight on donors bankrolling these organizations. Nothing’s stopping Crossroads GPS or AFP from running more “issue” ads hitting Obama and other Democrats (that is, ads that don’t explicitly say “vote for” or “vote against”). Except now nonprofits will have to reveal who funded those spots.

Dark-money nonprofits don’t want to name names. Their pitch to donors includes the promise of anonymity and a shield from public scrutiny. This means that Crossroads GPS and other politically active nonprofits—which aren’t supposed to make politicking their primary purpose—have to rethink their ad strategy, election experts say. {…}

Here’s the quick-and-dirty version of how nonprofits including Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, and pro-Obama Priorities USA, among others, ended up in this bind. Until recently, nonprofits had exploited a federal loophole allowing them to run issue ads without disclosing the sources of their funding. These so-called social welfare organizations may also run ads directly backing or opposing candidates, but can’t run too many of them at the risk of running afoul of the IRS for being too political.

In 2011, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and pro-reform advocacy groups sued the Federal Election Commission to close that loophole. This March, a federal district court judge agreed with Van Hollen, and a second federal judge refused to stay that decision. The loophole was gone. (The case is currently on appeal.)

In other words, the rule book has changed mid-election for politically active nonprofits, and the first effects will be felt Saturday. Now, if AFP or Priorities USA runs a TV or radio ad mentioning Obama or Romney without endorsing or opposing a candidate, the group’s donors must be named. Starting in early September, if they mention any federal candidate, donors must be named.

These groups are screaming that this is a blow to democracy. Why? Because having to say you’re donating to a specific group might “intimidate” donors, squelching their free speech. Apparently, in their perverted and twisted worldview, democracy is supposed to take place in secrecy, behind curtains so that nobody can actually witness you practicing your free speech, especially if you are a corporation or fabulously wealthy donor.

Cry me a damn river.

Kroll goes on to describe various changes that these so-called “nonprofits” like Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch group Americans For Prosperity will make to get around the requirement to disclose their donors identities. However, the overall impact on our elections is a favorable one. It won’t cure the horrendous onslaught of corporate, special-interest money into our elections but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Score one for the good guys.

[CC image credit: rishibando | Flickr]