The Secret Power Behind Local Elections
Because of Citizens United, corporations and PACs have an outsize influence on elections for city councils and utility commissions.
When the history of elections in 2016 is written, one of the central points is likely to be how little voters knew about the donors who influenced the contests. At the federal level, “dark money” groups — chiefly social welfare nonprofits and trade associations that aren’t required to disclose their donors and, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, can spend unlimited amounts on political advertising — have spent three times more in this election than they did at a comparable point in 2012.
Yet the rise of dark money may matter less in the race for president or Congress than for, say, the utilities commission in Arizona. Voters probably know much less about the candidates in contests like that, which get little news coverage but whose winner will have enormous power to affect energy company profits and what homeowners pay for electricity. For a relative pittance — less than $100,000 — corporations and others can use dark money to shape the outcome of a low-level race in which they have a direct stake.
Over the last year, the Brennan Center analyzed outside spending from before and after the 2010 Citizens United decision in six states — Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts — with almost 20 percent of the nation’s population. We also examined dozens of state and local elections where dark money could be linked to a particular interest.
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