How Semi-Secret Spending Took Over Politics
State and local super PACs are increasingly reliant on "grey money" — donations that trace back to other PACs — obscuring their actual sources of support.
As dark money in elections—spending by groups that conceal their funders from the public—has boomed in recent years, advocates of transparency have had one area of grudging relief. Super PACs, empowered by 2010’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United and the influential lower-court decision SpeechNow tospend unlimited sums, typically are required to disclose their donors.
The problem? They very often don’t—at least, not in a way that shows where their money really came from. In a new report looking at secret spending in state and local elections, we found that most of the nominally transparent outside spending in state races has become exceedingly difficult to trace, a phenomenon we’re calling “gray money.”
Gray money is spending by super PACs that disclose other PACs as donors, making it impossible for the public to identify the actual funders without sifting through multiple layers of PAC disclosures. With names like Citizens Against Taxation or Revive Arizona Now, those intermediate PACs provide the public little meaningful information about the interests behind them. So, while super PACs have long been categorized as transparent because they disclose their immediate donors, in reality their spending is now often as inscrutable to the average voter, candidate, or reporter as dark money. Notably, the phenomenon has been less common at the federal level.
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