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Tracking independent political spending harder since Citizens United

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The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — striking down bans on independent spending by unions, corporations, and individuals — continues to ripple through American politics, especially at the state level.

A new blog — The Money Tale — at the National Institute on Money in State Politics makes this abundantly clear. Writes researcher Anne Bauer:

Prior to the ruling, 24 states banned independent expenditures by unions, corporations, or both. Since the ruling, all 24 have dropped their bans following court challenges, rulings by attorneys general, or through legislation.

That means it’s even harder to find publicly accessible data on independent political spending in state races.

Campaign cash for federal races — the presidency and members of Congress — has been tracked for a decade by the Center for Responsive Politics (recently named to the inaugural list of institutions comprising a new journalism ecosystem). But the interpretation has often been done by people like me — using the CRP’s opensecrets.org site. Similarly, I’ve used reports at followthemoney.org as background for commentary on state elections and referenda.

But that was before Citizens United. Now, at either the state or federal level, can we calculate which is larger: The total of publicly accessible, legally required reports of contributions to candidates — or the the total of anonymous, unreported, publicly unaccessible spending legitimized by the Supreme Court?

These two public-service, nonpartisan organizations — the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics — have put resources in trying to pry free evidence of unregulated political spending. At opensecrets, communications director Dave Levinthal has put together a team of researchers whose output can be found at the opensecrets blog. It’s required — and excellent — reading.

Similarly, Edwin Bender’s staff at the institute has created The Money Tale to explore political funding at the state level.

Which brings me back to Anne Bauer’s post. Tracking money through 50 states is a helluva lot harder than dealing with federal races. Writes Bauer:

The Institute gets several calls a day from citizens and media members looking to follow the money spent on state races, and we tell them it all comes down to state-specific reporting requirements. Independent money spent in support or opposition to candidates is reported on a unique state-based form that is subject to distinct state guidelines – if the state requires disclosure at all.

So the institute is spending some of its hard-raised money to try to track money in the 12 states that require meaningful, publicly accessible disclosure of independent spending — Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maine Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. Its researchers will try to do another 10 states where they think they can find accessible data.

But Bauer reports that state-level access to independent political spending records is spotty and variable.

Another 17 states require spenders to report independent political spending, and do require the kind of information important to the public, but it’s harder for the public to access the reports.

Thirteen states require some kind of disclosure, but leave out important information such as who the expenditure was targeting.

Eight states don’t require disclosure at all, or the expenditures aren’t identifiable.

Perhaps Bauer & Co. will be successful in demonstrating in states in which they can track independent political spending that the public is well served by such transparency. And perhaps the states that do not permit such tracking would be embarrassed by such shortcomings. (And I believe in the Easter Bunny.)

I’m just glad to know that at least two organizations exist willing to dedicate resources to tracking hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden political spending. I hope those folks interested in such data will contribute to their efforts in time and treasure.

Citizens United cast a pall over the 2010 election season. The unregulated spending the decision created needs more sunlight so that its damage to our political system can be readily seen.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

November 12, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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