The past few elections in Arkansas might be unrecognizable to someone who lived there in Bill Clinton’s heyday, or even in Mike Huckabee’s. Neither of the former governors’ elections saw the millions of dollars in secretive interest group spending that’s now commonplace in state campaigns. And while Arkansas cannot limit the amount of that spending, it can and should pass a pending bill that would help voters learn who’s behind the big-money political ads.
Since 2010’s Citizens United decision, states across the country have seen a sharp rise in campaign spending by outside groups like super PACs. A recent Brennan Center report showed how difficult it’s been to track the source of that spending — often, business interests spend heavily on state or local races, but the ads they produce give viewers no indication where the money came from. In one of the starkest examples, a 2014 election for Arizona’s public utilities commission attracted over $3 million in dark money from outside groups, successfully helping elect two new commissioners in a hotly contested election. Later reports indicated that much of the spending likely came from the state’s largest utility business, who strongly opposed the state’s law encouraging consumers to use solar power, but the state’s campaign rules did not require disclosure of the spending’s true source.
Arkansas has seen a similar procession of expensive, mysterious ads in recent elections. In 2012, groups with generic names like the “60 Plus Association” spent heavily to attack legislators who they claimed supported Obamacare. Two years later, a group called the Center for Individual Freedom spent almost $2 million to attack Republican attorney general candidate Leslie Rutledge. Much of the secret spending has focused on Arkansas’ Supreme Court — outside groups spent about $1.2 million on elections for two court seats in 2016, and about half of that spending came from groups that didn’t disclose their funders.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Some states have passed common-sense laws that tell voters who’s funding political ads, and Arkansas can do the same. A bill introduced in November by Rep. Clarke Tucker would do just that: ensure that any group spending on political ads must report how much they spent and who gave them that money. They would also need to report where their donors got their money. This multi-step disclosure would help prevent groups from shuffling money around to avoid reporting the names of their true financial backers — a problem we identified as “gray money.”
Elected officials from both sides of the aisle in Arkansas have recognized that secret political spending is a pernicious problem for the state’s democracy. When a bipartisan group of legislators in Montana saw a similar problem, they passed a helpful disclosure law. Arkansas legislators should do the same thing soon to make sure that 2016 was the last dark money election in the state.