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Commentary: Democracy and dark money

Today is the 110th birthday of one of my greatest heroes: George Orwell, who spent his too-short life fighting for fairness, honesty and democracy.

Orwell has been dead since 1950, and today, when we use the adjective Orwellian to describe something, we usually don’t mean something good. We mean something dark, sinister and hypocritical, something that reminds us of his book 1984.

Well, there’s no doubt that we have something of an Orwellian campaign finance system in this state, and today one of my living heroes, Rich Robinson, is releasing a new report showing in frightening detail just how much money dominates politics.

His survey, Descending Into Dark Money, shows that we don’t know where the vast majority of campaign spending comes from. And the system is designed to prevent us from finding out.

What’s worse, he shows how phony so-called issue ads have thoroughly corrupted our judicial campaigns. Robinson, who runs the non-profit and non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, has dedicated much of his adult life to researching and trying to educate people about the influence of money in our state’s politics.

He worked on this report for most of a year. Like many of us, Robinson was dismayed three years ago, when, in a case known as Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially said there could be no corporate campaign spending limits.

Yesterday, Robinson told me, “I hear a great deal of despair about the influence of money in politics. I don’t believe there will be a time in the foreseeable future when there will be any restraints on spending. For that reason, I think it’s critical that we achieve authentic, rigorous disclosure of whose money is driving politics.” 

What many don’t realize is that at the same time the highest court said there couldn’t be campaign spending limits, the courts said states could compel full disclosure of who is spending what.

But Michigan law doesn’t even do that. In an essay in the Dark Money report, Robinson shows how this leads to abuses that especially taint judicial elections.

Michigan does have a campaign finance law that requires disclosure of money donated to a particular candidate. But nobody has to disclose the sources of what is called “issue-oriented advertisements.” Since the turn of the century, nearly $100 million has been spent on so-called “issue ads” directly meant to influence elections.

That’s especially improper in judicial elections. Judges are supposed to be above partisan politics, and it is improper or illegal to lobby them. But you would never know that from the torrent of mostly anonymous ads that appear.

Descending Into Dark Money chronicles these abuses, and provides as complete as possible a campaign finance report for virtually every state official. Robinson said, “The degree to which ‘dark money’ dominates Supreme Court campaigns is a disgrace, and a grave threat to impartial justice. “

He believes that if we can achieve transparency in judicial campaigns, it will be much harder to justify dark money, in other races. After all, we at least should be able to see who is buying our leaders. You can see the full report on the website, www.mcfn.org.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.