Early last month, state lawyers and election officials around the country dialed into a conference call to talk about how to deal with the flood of secret money that played an unprecedented role in the 2012 election. The discussion, which included officials from California, New York, Alaska and Maine, was a first step toward a collaborative effort to force tax-exempt advocacy organizations and trade associations out of the shadows. The unusual initiative was driven by the lack of progress at the federal level in pushing those groups to disclose their contributors if they engage in campaigns, as candidates and political action committees are required to do.
“There is no question that one of the reasons to have states working together is because the federal government, in numerous arenas, has failed to take action,” said Ann Ravel, chairwoman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, who organized the call with officials from about 10 states.
The 2012 campaign set a high-water mark for independent groups, which unleashed more than $1 billion into federal races, three times as much as in 2008, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The bulk of that spending was by “super PACs,” which must disclose their donors. But nonprofit advocacy groups and trade organizations, which do not have to reveal their financial backers, accounted for $309 million. Among them were the conservative Crossroads GPS, the liberal Patriot Majority USA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The actual influence of such organizations was far greater, as tax-exempt groups also poured tens of millions of dollars into election-related activity that they were not required to report.