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In The Public Interest: Following The Money In Michigan Politics

Mar 25, 2019

Michigan Campaign Finance Network Logo
Credit Michigan Campaign Finance Network / mcfn.org

This week on "In the Public Interest," our bi-weekly conversation with the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area, 89.1 WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with league member Paige Nong about understanding how some money is spent anonymously on campaigns in Michigan.


About the Guest

Paige Nong from the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

Paige Nong joined the League after the 2016 election to become better acquainted with local civic issues.  The League is not Paige’s only community involvement as she is very actively involved in a community program called Circles, which is run by Friends in Deed and aims to support individuals and families as they try to transition out of generational poverty.  

A native of Ann Arbor, Paige works at the University of Michigan as a research associate and project manager in health information and policy. 

Paige has appeared on this program to talk about the Brews & Views evening education series run by the League.  On the third Wednesday of every month at 7:30pm at either Homes Brewery on Jackson Road or Pointless Brewery on Packard Rd., people meet for a combination of education and discussion.  The events are open to the community.

What/who is the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN)?

· independent,

· non-profit corporation

· educate the public about the impact of money in politics in Michigan.

· uses publicly available sources of data, to summarize and analyze political fundraising.

· Click here for their website.

Why did you invite Craig Mauger (MCFN executive director) to Brews & Views?

The League has an official position on money in politics:

“Elections should be about the voters not big money interests. It’s time to limit super PAC’s and secret donors to protect representative democracy.”

Why does it matter?

· Voters have the right to know who is raising money for which political candidates, how much money they are raising and how that money is being spent.

· Our elections should be free from corruption and undue influence

· everyday Americans should be able to run for office, even if they aren’t well connected to wealthy special interests.

How can it matter?

· Large donations might lead to undue influence,

· chilling effect of the threat of possible donations to an opponent.

What are some of the sources MFCN uses:

· Political campaigns and certain Political Action Committees are required by law to make periodic reports of their financial activity.

· The Michigan Secretary of State records this information for state level elections.

This is available to the public on the SOS website here

· County Clerks maintain this information for local and county-wide political campaigns. 

· Indirect sources such as radio and TV reports of campaign ads aired

Who files?

In brief:

1. Candidate campaigns

2. Political action committees (PAC) who must not coordinate with candidate campaign but who urge you to vote for someone.

Who doesn’t file?

· organizations making what are called issue ads are not required to provide financial information.

· can tell you how bad someone is and tell you to phone and complain;

· can tell you how good someone is and “we need her in Lansing”

· as long as they do not ask you to vote for a person, no financial reporting is required.

Sounds clear-cut.  It is this simple?

Not at all. A quick Google search will reveal that this can be a very complex situation.  A financial report may list a contribution from easily identified individuals or well-known corporations or unions, but it may include as a contributor another organization who lists a third organization etc.  It is easy to create a corporation for the sole purpose of political activity and the ultimate donor can hide behind layers of vaguely-named entities.

For issue oriented organizations there is no reporting at all, so we have no official way to learn who is funding that activity.

How much money are we talking about?

Lots.  MFCN reports that

· $97 million was raised over 2017 and 2018 by Michigan top 150 political action committees, shattering their past fundraising record for a two-year election cycle.

· up 42 percent from the previous record, which was the last time Michigan elected a governor.

· Seeing the growing role of groups acting independently of candidates in campaigns and the increased financial influence of individual families and organizations.

The February 8 US News & World Report has an article:  Public Remains in the Dark on Nonprofit Political Spending: Report

A new report suggests that ‘dark money’ disclosure requirements prompted by a recent federal court ruling have largely been ignored.

By Peter Olsen-Phillips, Staff Writer Feb. 8, 2019, at 1:53 p.m.

POLITICALLY ACTIVE "dark money"  groups spent more than $50.7 million on direct advocacy at the height of the midterm campaigns last year, but just 8 percent of that money came from groups that identified some of their donors, according to a new analysis by the Campaign Legal Center.

The finding comes despite a recent court decision that seemed to open a path to increased transparency. The August decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. the Federal Election Commission required all groups making independent expenditures – spending on things like advertisements or mailings that directly advocate for or against a candidate – to report the names of donors that contributed money for political purposes.

But the center report, issued Wednesday, concludes that just a few months removed from that decision, most of these organizations have sidestepped the new rules. It draws on year-end reports from the 2018 midterms that show most dark money operations – which include nonprofits and other corporations – are remaining dark, indicating to the FEC that they did not receive any donations expressly for political activities.

Majority Forward, a nonprofit corporation that spent more than $40 million on independent expenditures supporting Democratic candidates in the 2018 cycle, disclosed none of its donors, noting that "as a matter of policy, Majority Forward does not accept funds earmarked for independent expenditure activity or for other political purposes in support or opposition to federal candidates.

That seems unlikely, according to the Campaign Legal Center. It strains credulity for groups like Majority Forward, Patriot Majority USA, and Texas Organizing Project to claim that no donors gave for political purposes, the group says in its report, naming other prominent dark money operations that also did not disclose their donors.  These groups may be calculating that the FEC is unlikely to second-guess these implausible assertions.

It's not clear what action, if any, the Federal Election Commission will take in these cases. With an equal number of Democratic and Republican commissioners, the federal watchdog often deadlocks on controversial issues. Currently, the agency is shorthanded at four commissioners instead of six, and, because any official commission action statutorily requires the support of four members, a unanimous vote is necessary

Is this just a problem for legislative and governor campaigns?

· No, the 7 Michigan Supreme court justices are elected.

· These are very expensive campaigns

· $18 million was spent in 2012, 75% of this was undisclosed.

Is this just a problem at the state and federal level?

No, MCFN is starting to see dark money in local campaigns.

What the League is doing?

· LWVAAA works to bring information to area residents so they become aware and ask the question “who is the money behind these ads”

· LWVUS position – “We fight to reform money in politics in Congress, with state legislatures, with the executive branch and, where appropriate, the courts.  We are deeply committed to reforming our nation’s campaign finance system to ensure the public’s right to know, combat corruption and undue influence, and enable candidates to compete more equitably in public office and allow maximum citizen participation in the political process.”

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu