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Editor's View
Rise of ‘dark money’ diminishes democracy

By the time readers get this issue of the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal, many of them probably will have voted. So even if I wanted this column to influence anyone’s choices — I don’t — and even if I deluded myself into thinking my opinion could have such influence, it would be too late.

For the record, political endorsements made by the Business Journal are publisher Lary Coppola’s choices, and that’s as it should be. Suffice it to say that his political views and mine don’t align perfectly.

Regardless of who’s elected president, governor or county commissioner, this election cycle should compel everyone who claims to cherish and defend our democracy to take a hard look at what’s happening to it. Because it’s being corrupted by appalling sums of corporate money funneled anonymously through so-called “social welfare” groups, while the two-party system ignores critical issues and excludes important alternative voices.

Some things that need to happen to restore our democracy to something resembling the fair system it’s meant to be:

  • Overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s egregious Citizens United decision;
  • Thwart the hypocritical push for voter-ID laws that are a cynically disguised voter suppression strategy — it’s well-documented that instances of voter fraud are as rare as sightings of Halley’s Comet;
  • End exclusion of third-party candidates from the presidential debates, and stop arresting the ones who try to take part;
  • Abolish the electoral college.

Regarding that last item: The possibility that Mitt Romney could win the popular vote only to see President Barack Obama get enough electoral votes to win re-election, well, that may be a wry gratification to contemplate a dozen years after the Bush v. Gore outcome. But there’s no justification for continuing such an outdated system. How could anyone still preach that every vote counts if the runner-up in actual voting wins the presidency?

If ever there were an election year when a populist third-party candidate might draw support from voters disillusioned with the incumbent and distrustful of the challenger, this would seem to be it. Former two-term President Teddy Roosevelt ran a robust but unsuccessful independent campaign in 1912 after splitting from the Republican party of his day, but in the century since then the two-party system has only become more entrenched, as well as more beholden than ever to corporate interests and determined to choke off any third-party insurgencies.

People can argue for or against letting third-party candidates in the debates. What’s unjustifiable, though, is the treatment of Green Party presidential nominee Dr. Jill Stein and her running mate when they sat in the street in nonviolent protest after police blocked them from entering the site of the second debate at Hofstra University in New York. These women — on the ballot in 38 states — were arrested and taken to a police holding area in a cold warehouse, handcuffed to a metal chair for hours, and released only after the debate was over. Serves ‘em right for posing such a grave threat to the status quo.

By far the most noxious force diminishing our democracy is the unfettered rise of groups spending vast sums of “dark money,” as allowed by the Citizens United ruling.

Super PACs at least have to identify the billionaires bankrolling them. But the other groups are 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which means unlimited contributions to them are not tax-deductible but their donors can remain anonymous. They have tax-exempt status because they’re supposed to “primarily” enhance social welfare, and they are subject to IRS?restrictions on political spending — which are easily skirted and rarely enforced.

The website ProPublica.org has published in-depth articles examining the ramifications of Citizens United and the extensive influence of dark money, including one headlined “How Nonprofits Spend Millions on Elections and Call it Public Welfare.” These groups that operate in “the darkest corner of American political fundraising” are spending more than $100 million this year, and will outspend the lavishly funded super PACs.

The Supreme Court ruled corporations (and unions) have the same free speech rights as persons, and that money is protected free speech. So unlimited corporate money buys unlimited attack ads that distort facts and trample on truth. Meanwhile, two real people — beholden to no corporate donors — trying to exercise their real free speech rights are handcuffed and banished.

Hard to argue that that’s democracy.

Tim Kelly's picture
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