Super PACs Are Continuing to Hide Secret Money From Wealthy Special Interests. Here’s How.

One hand passing money to another hand under a table

Super PACs are required to publicly disclose all of their donors. But in the last three months alone, super PACs on both sides of the political spectrum have hidden the true source of tens of millions of dollars of campaign contributions. 

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, super PACs may raise unlimited amounts from individuals or corporations. And they are: in the 2020 cycle, super PACs tied to both major presidential candidates, top congressional races, and controversial issue areas are raising exorbitant amounts of money.

Super PACs are at least required to be transparent about where their money comes from by reporting their fundraising (and spending) to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). But that transparency is undermined when super PACs only report contributions from secretly-funded “dark money” nonprofits, which themselves keep their donors hidden from the public.

This means that wealthy special interests can disguise bottomless contributions by using dark money organizations to funnel money into super PACs, thereby secretly influencing elections and rigging the political system in their favor.

Recent FEC reports show that the dark money-to-super PAC phenomenon is a bipartisan problem. Major super PACs have received millions of dollars, and in some cases most or all of their funding, from groups that keep their donors hidden from the public. For example:  

  • Hidden sources were responsible for nearly all of the money raised by Victory 2020, a newly established joint fundraising committee between the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century (AB PAC) and the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country. $5.7 million of the total $5.9 million Victory 2020 has raised this cycle came from dark money group Sixteen Thirty Fund. The Sixteen Thirty Fund also gave $3.5 million to major Democratic super PAC Priorities Action USA.
  • The AB PAC has also received $3.1 million from its dark money arm, the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation. This means that nearly a fifth of the super PAC’s total contributions reported to the FEC for the last quarter came from unknown funders.
  • In June, the Republican-aligned dark money group American Action Network (AAN) gave $7 million to the Republican super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) – meaning that more than 40% of CLF’s funding came from unknown sources. AAN has long been a major source of shadowy contributions to CLF: the dark money group has given more than $50 million over just the last four years.
  • The Democrat-aligned super PAC Senate Majority PAC received $8 million from left-of-center dark money group Majority Forward last month, more than a quarter of the super PAC’s reported contributions. To aid the Democratic Party’s efforts in Congressional elections, House Majority PAC received $1.5 million from the secret money group House Majority Forward.
  • American Policy Fund and Desert Leadership Fund, two newly formed conservative super PACs, reported receiving virtually all of their funding from the conservative dark money group American Economic Freedom Alliance, which has reportedly been linked to Vice President Pence.
  • The National Rifle Association (NRA) formed the super PAC NRA Victory Fund, Inc. earlier this year. Since then, they’ve raised over $1 million in secret money, virtually all of its current cash on hand, through the NRA’s dark money arm, the NRA-ILA.

To reduce political corruption, we need real transparency about who is spending big money on elections so that politicians can no longer receive unlimited secret money from wealthy special interests to support their campaigns.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Congress can pass the DISCLOSE Act and the For the People Act, which would go a long way towards shining a light on dark money by revealing the true funders behind our elections. 

Sophia is a Senior Researcher/Investigator on CLC's Campaign Finance/Ethics team.