In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision dramatically restructured political financing in the United States. With a 5-4 majority, the Court categorized political donations as a protected form of speech for corporations, unions, and individuals, raising plenty of concerns about transparency. For example, Super PAC donors disclose the names of donors and donation amounts only infrequently: on a quarterly or monthly basis.
Other political financing organizations, such as 501(c)(4)s, don’t even necessarily have to disclose donors or donation amounts, despite the large role they play in campaign fundraising. Consider Crossroads GPS, a conservative-leaning 501(c)(4) backed by Karl Rove, which recently purchased $25 million worth of television ads to be aired in nine battleground states.
According to Open Secrets, 62% of the money donated to Super PACs originated from just 1% of all Super PAC donors. That works out to 54 donors giving a total of $101.2 million. We can’t help but ask just how representative of the American public these donations are.
Many citizens have the same question and it comes as no surprise that, as the U.S. gears up for the fall presidential elections, a variety of organizations and individuals are attempting to counter and highlight the new campaign finance framework.
For one, Social Teeth, a tech startup, is harnessing the power of social networking websites against the “blitzkrieg” of Super PAC-funded campaign ads. Partnered with an independent media-buying group, Social Teeth provides a platform (not unlike Kickstarter) for interested parties to throw their financial support behind independently produced political ads, expected to launch on August 15th. It remains to be seen what messages these political ads will hold.
There’s also the upcoming Super PAC App, an iPhone app that uses audio fingerprinting technology while watching or listening to a Super PAC-funded political ad. Point the phone at the screen, activate the app, and it will tell you the Super PAC’s ideological leaning, the ad’s major claims, and links to articles that either verify or negate those claims. The app comes out of the MIT Beehive Cooperative startup accelerator and recently received funding from the Knight Foundation. The free app will be available soon.
Think tanks have also become mobilized against the rising power of Super PACs. One think tank, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has a project called “FlackCheck.org” that monitors campaign ads and provides a fact-checking service for the claims offered in the ads to monitor for deceptive claims. Last month FlackCheck.org announced that among the top four 501(c)(4)s, 85% of the money spent on campaign ads went towards ads that contained at least one deceptive claim. FlackCheck.org is also active in its advocacy campaign against the rise in deceptive third-party ads, hosting a petition for local television stations to vet carefully the campaign ads they broadcast. At least one major ad – an ad sponsored by the pro-Romney Super PAC “Restore Our Future” – was amended as a result of the advocacy campaign.
Citizens are also leading initiatives against the recent court decisions. On July 24th, for example, nearly two million signatures were delivered in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The signatures were timed to coincide with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights’ hearing on the decision.
Campaign financing has even made its way into popular culture. The most well-known case is Stephen Colbert, the popular comedian and political satirist of the Colbert Report, who petitioned before the Federal Election Commission and received permission to create his own Super PAC: “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” In an effort to demonstrate how easy it is to create and register a Super PAC, Colbert put together and sold 1,000 “Super Fun PAC” kits, spawning a host of satirical Super PACs including “Just Drink the Kool Aid” and “Have-Nots United! Half-Knots Untie!”
But will these efforts be successful in countering the power of Super PACs and other campaign financing organizations? It’s difficult to counter the $156.4 million spent so far by Super PACs in the 2012 cycle, as reported by Open Secrets. Moreover, after the Supreme Court reaffirmed its Citizens United decision in June, it will be difficult to make radical changes to existing campaign finance laws without a constitutional amendment. That said, already we see value in bringing popular attention to issues surrounding the deregulation of campaign financing. The continued integration of technology, be it through websites such as Social Teeth or mobile apps, is also a promising development because it provides new avenues for civic education and engagement.
More information on elections and campaign finance transparency in the United States can be found in the 2011 Global Integrity Report.
— Image Credit: IIaannaa