New CLC Issue Brief Shows How a Major Dark Money Group Exploited Digital Ad Loopholes in the 2018 Election—And Why Congress Needs to Close the Gaps

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Majority Forward was one of the top-spending “dark money” groups in the 2018 elections, reporting approximately $46 million in independent expenditures to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in 2018 while keeping its donors hidden from the public.

But new evidence uncovered by Campaign Legal Center (CLC) shows Majority Forward secretly spent more on undisclosed digital political ads targeted at voters in states with competitive Senate seats.

Thanks to gaps in federal campaign finance law, Majority Forward never reported its spending on these digital ads to the FEC. Voters targeted by these ads—which stated only that they were paid for by “The Tax Scam”—were given no indication that a major Democratic dark money group was funding them.

Using the combined new tools of ProPublica’s Facebook ad archive and Facebook’s own ad archive, CLC identified this little-noticed and unreported Majority Forward digital campaign in the 2018 elections.

If Majority Forward’s “Tax Scam” ads had been run on TV, some would have been subject to legal disclaimer and reporting requirements. Under current law, “electioneering communications” are defined as broadcast but not digital —ads run near an election that name a candidate, and are targeted to that candidate’s voters, even if they don’t expressly tell viewers to vote for or against a candidate.

But because these ads were run online, they could remain shrouded in secrecy without breaking any laws. The ads did not tell viewers that Majority Forward paid for them, nor did Majority Forward report its spending to the FEC.

Majority Forward may have calculated that its ads would be more effective if they appeared to come from an issue-focused organization called The Tax Scam rather than from a national Democratic dark money group. Federal campaign finance law’s digital blind spot allowed them to get away with it.

The story of The Tax Scam offers a glimpse into what greater transparency around digital political ads can reveal—and shows why Congress needs to codify and protect that transparency by updating our campaign finance laws for the 21st century.

Read "Digital Deception: How a Major Democratic Dark Money Group Exploited Digital Ad Loopholes in the 2018 Election"

Brendan directs CLC’s work before federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Election Commission (FEC).