That’s the best word to sum up what voters must endure at election time when “dark money” political operations re-emerge to meddle in Nebraska’s elections. These unaccountable groups, which hide their funding as well as their donors from public view, indulge unapologetically in sliming candidates who fail to agree with them 100%.
Nebraskans are familiar with the nasty-looking door hangers these activist groups leave at homes and apartments during campaign season. The door hangers usually wave unsettling images in voters’ faces and employ hysterical rhetoric, all to undermine the election chances of the targeted candidate.
Dark money groups sidestep transparency regulations for political activity by making the legalistic argument that they’re merely “educational” groups. So, by law, they’re not required to reveal their funding sources or how much they spend to target candidates. Election season after election season, this legal loophole opens the door wide to political gutter tactics.
A truly educational group would provide a detached, objective approach to describing issues and candidates. Dark money groups, in contrast, side heavily against specific candidates. The only education they’re providing is instruction in the tactics of character assassination.
The activities of these groups are a key reason why vulgarity has so increased in political life, and why public cynicism about politics is so widespread. Capable men and women who could serve well in public life decide against running for office to spare their families the grief that comes from being targeted by dark money attacks.
Spirited policy advocacy by any group is fine and needed in a free society. Below-the-belt political attacks are not.
None of this is a secret at the Nebraska Legislature. Time and again, state senators have sponsored bills to require transparency for these groups. Yet, the Legislature has never summoned the will to enact needed regulations. In part that’s because a lot of incumbents benefit at election time from dark money targeting of their opponents. In part it’s because American politics is now so coarsened that lawmakers shrug off the dark money tactics as “normal.” And in part because many incumbents would like to see the Legislature jettison its tradition of nonpartisanship and cooperation and morph into a Congress-style institution marked by party control and unbending support for rigid ideology.
It’s true that approving sensible transparency requirements for dark money groups wouldn’t remove nasty campaign tactics from Nebraska elections. Some of the state’s leading interest groups, right-wing and left-wing, also stoop to smearing candidates they oppose. But such transparency would serve the public interest in important ways. Nebraskans would see, at last, what money is coming from within the state — the Ricketts family is known for its strong financial support for political activism, for instance — and what is coming from outside. The spending totals would finally be known.
Isn’t it in the public interest to know what political donations are streaming into Nebraska from, say, Kansas or Florida? Wouldn’t the public interest be served by having dark money groups report how much they spent on individual contests? The answers are clearly yes.
Such common-sense transparency is rightly required of donations to political campaigns. Similar accountability is appropriate for dark money groups.
This session, State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue is sponsoring a transparency bill. It deserves to be released from the Government, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee and sent to the full Legislature for debate, with sensible amendments always an option. Otherwise, the Legislature will fall back into its longstanding inaction on this issue. There’s a word for such neglect.