When West Virginia voters went to the polls on May 8th, they didn’t know who was behind millions in Super PAC spending.
The Republican primary for Senate was hotly contested and two of the biggest outside spenders were two newly-created Super PACs: Duty and Country, which spent $1.85 million, and Mountain Families PAC, which spent $1.3 million.
The innocuous names reveal little about their affiliation, but reporters have identified that the Mountain Families PAC is affiliated with Mitch McConnell and establishment Republicans, and Duty and Country PAC is associated with establishment Washington D.C. Democrats.
But both groups gamed the FEC’s reporting schedule to keep voters in the dark about their funding until after the ballots are cast.
Aware of the heightened spending in the weeks immediately preceding Election Day, the FEC requires that PACs submit a pre-primary report revealing the source of their donations before people vote.
However, this requirement extends only to PACs that file on a quarterly basis but not those that file on a monthly basis. Mountain Families PAC formed on March 29, two days before the first quarterly reporting period ended on March 31, and said it would file quarterly. It didn’t disclose any contributions on its first quarterly report, and then changed to a monthly reporting schedule. Duty and Country formed in January, and similarly shifted to a monthly reporting schedule after filing a quarterly report disclosing just $150 in contributions. Their next report won’t be filed until May 20th, almost two weeks after the primary — meaning voters won’t know the sources of their funding until well after election day.
This follows the playbook used by another Super PAC, Highway 31, which went to great lengths to make sure that Alabama voters did not know who was paying for the advertisements that influenced the Alabama Senate election in December. On its only FEC report filed before election day, Highway 31 claimed that it had not raised a single penny, and that its ads were produced and placed entirely on credit. It was only after the election that Highway 31 filed a report disclosing that its primary backers were national Democratic super PACs.
Disclosure of political spending is important because, as the Supreme Court has said, it is essential to “insure that the voters are fully informed about the person or group who is speaking.” In the same case disclosure was noted as essential because “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Both parties are guilty of crafting new schemes to avoid commonsense disclosure requirements. West Virginia was a prominent example and operatives continue to utilize the same tricks. In Texas’ 2nd Congressional district a new group, Conservative Results Matter, has spent over half a million dollars in support of their favored candidate but by gaming their reporting schedule, they too were able to shield the identity of their donors while running ads.
These purposeful attempts to evade disclosing donors represent an attack on a key tenet of election transparency and integrity, and with the plethora of Super PACs popping up, this scheme is being repeated by savvy political operators in races across the country.
The FEC should take a closer look at the gaps in its reporting requirements. But Congress could also enact legislation requiring that a group list its top funders on the face of its advertisements, which would make it harder to execute these disclosure dodges. California’s DISCLOSE Act includes such a requirement. Only decisive action can shine a light on these groups and end the intentional shielding of donors.