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A warning about "dark money" in Michigan campaigns

Michigan’s long-time and highly regarded elections director is retiring with a dire warning about “dark money.”

“Clearly those who give money, I think, have more influence, doors open easier,” former Michigan Elections Director Chris Thomas told It’s Just Politics. He says secret donations are undermining fair and honest elections.

A storied career

Thomas stepped down Friday after serving 36 years in the job. He made sure Michigan’s elections ran smoothly and honestly.

Thomas was not only Michigan’s longest-serving elections director but he was also the longest-serving elections director in the country. He was appointed by a Democrat, and three Republicans kept him on the job.

Thomas is quiet and neutral, and kept his politics to himself. But he felt like he couldn’t leave his position without warning of a danger to fair voting and democracy, and that’s the ability of largely invisible wealthy donors to support candidates with untraceable contributions. 

Money talks

“Where does that come out in the wash? It comes out in public policy. Public officials understand who’s giving to those funds when it’s necessary,” Thomas explained. “Dark money” donors are kept secret to the public, but not to politicians.

Now we don’t know all the ways that “dark money” is used to effect the political process - that’s why it’s called “dark money.”

But one of the most common ways is by using so-called “issue ads.” These are ads that are ostensibly for voter “education.”

But that definition is broadly interpreted to include any political message that does not expressly say “vote for” or “vote against.” Very often, the call to action in an ad might be to “call” this politician. It might be on a specific issue, or a more broad topic, say “Call this representative and tell him to stop raising our taxes.”    

But, for all practical purposes, it’s a campaign ad. We just don’t know who’s paying for it.


So, Chris Thomas’ complaint - and a lot of other critics of Michigan’s campaign finance disclosure system - is that this circumvents campaign disclosure laws that were meant to keep campaigns operating in the open, so that voters can get a sense of a candidate by seeing who is donating and spending on their behalf.

Technically, these dark money funds aren’t supposed to coordinate with candidate campaigns. But that’s handled with a hint and a wink.

Like in 2010 when the Republican Governors Association ran an issue ad in Michigan that used the same ad firm that Rick Snyder’s campaign used. The firm just happened to have video and images archived from work done for the Snyder campaign.

Now, backers of “dark money” donors say this privacy is necessary so wealthy people can exercise their free speech rights without fear of boycotts or retribution for their giving.

Looking for change

This all leads to the question: if it’s so easy to get around disclosure requirements, why have them at all? Well, for one, the legislature would be lambasted if it tried to repeal the requirements and, second, as we’ve mentioned, they’ve learned to get around them.

But here’s a secret: there is nothing stopping the Legislature from living up to the spirit of campaign disclosure by requiring dark money funds to report who’s paying for their ads.

Chris Thomas says lawmakers could do that... they just won’t.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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