Skip Navigation
Analysis

In Alabama, Senate Race Raises Disclosure Concerns

In the Alabama Senate race, super PAC Highway 31 is raising eyebrows through a different and particularly novel method of obscuring funds.

December 2, 2017

For months, eyes have been focused on the upcom­ing special elec­tion in Alabama to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Attor­ney General Jeff Sessions. The special elec­tion —  slated for Decem­ber 12 of this year —  is highly contested, with some polls indic­at­ing that Repub­lican candid­ate Roy Moore has pulled back into a narrow lead. 

Much of the focus in this race has centered on doubts regard­ing Moore’s fitness for office, which was called even further into ques­tion in recent weeks follow­ing multiple deeply disturb­ing alleg­a­tions of sexual assault and child pred­a­tion.  For those inter­ested in campaign finance reform, however, the race has caused jaws to drop for an addi­tional reason: the lack of disclos­ure of campaign donors. Both Moore and Demo­crat Doug Jones are heav­ily funded by super PACs — which of course, post-Citizens United, is not shock­ing in and of itself.  Super PACs are required to disclose their donors, but those donors are frequently nonprofit organ­iz­a­tions that are not, them­selves, required to disclose their donors —  result­ing in a flood of “dark money” in recent elec­tions. In the Alabama race, one super PAC, High­way 31, is rais­ing eyebrows through a differ­ent and partic­u­larly novel method of obscur­ing its funds.

High­way 31 is the largest inde­pend­ent spender in the Alabama race and has repor­ted spend­ing nearly $2 million on ads support­ing Jones. In fact, NBC News recently repor­ted that Jones is outspend­ing Moore by nearly ten-to-one over the airwaves.  Aston­ish­ingly, however, its Novem­ber 30, 2017 filing with the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion — which was expec­ted to be High­way 31’s first item­ized disclos­ure of its donors and expendit­ures — shows two long columns of zeroes. That is, High­way 31 has not received or spent any money at all. The filing also shows that High­way 31 owes seven figures in debts and oblig­a­tions. 

High­way 31 is fund­ing its ads completely on credit.  How it will pay back its debts — or, put differ­ently, who will pay those debts — will not be clear until after the elec­tion. Per the FEC’s report­ing sched­ule, High­way 31 need not submit another filing until Janu­ary. Voters will simply have no way of deci­pher­ing the iden­tity of High­way 31’s donors until then.

Putting the candid­ates aside, we should be concerned about the preced­ent that High­way 31’s fancy foot­work sets for future races. Disclos­ure of donors is crit­ical, no matter which side of the aisle you fall on. Voters have a right to know who is fund­ing the advert­ise­ments inten­ded to persuade them to vote in a partic­u­lar way, and who is most likely to try to influ­ence the votes of their elec­ted repres­ent­at­ives.  It is worth remem­ber­ing that, even though Citizens United completely evis­cer­ated crucial campaign finance regu­la­tions, it never­the­less upheld disclos­ure, observing that disclos­ure “enables the elect­or­ate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to differ­ent speak­ers and messages.” This latest epis­ode only under­scores the need to expand trans­par­ency in polit­ical spend­ing.