The Impact of Dark Money on U.S. Elections

Throughout the 2020 United States election cycle, over $1 billion was injected into the country’s political system, according to a March 17, 2021 article titled “‘Dark money’ Topped $1 Billion in 2020, Largely Boosting Democrats” written by Anna Massoglia and Karl Evers-Hillstrom and published on March 17, 2021 for Over $514,000 of that money was directed by liberal institutions, and over $200,000 was directed by conservative ones. What makes this money different from the rest of the nearly $15 billion that went into the election is the fact that, according to the article, no one can trace where the money came from according to the article.

This phenomenon is called dark money, and it has been affecting United States election cycles for over a decade now, empowered by certain loopholes in the U.S. tax code, according to this article from Open Secrets’ webpage titled “Dark Money Basics.” In addition, this article defines dark money as “…Spending meant to influence political outcomes where the source of the money is not disclosed.”

Another article on the Opensecrets website titled “Follow the Shadow of Dark Money” explains the way individuals and organizations get around donation visibility is by donating to nonprofits with a 501(c)3 tax designation. Due to their nonprofit status, these organizations can receive unlimited funding through donations and, because of the money’s status as a charitable contribution, are not required to list their donors.

These nonprofits can then transfer the money to political action committees, often labeled as either Super PACs or Hybrid PACs, that can receive unlimited funds, but must report their donors. These PACs can then take that money and put it towards any campaign or candidate they so choose, according to the Federal Election Commission’s website.

While it’s not illegal, this type of under-the-radar politicking is part of the reason why The PEW Research Center webpage reports a steady decrease in public officials, as of September 19, 2023. . Donation caps exist for a reason; so that no one person or organization can control United States elections to such an extreme extent, according to an October 04, 2019 article titled “Campaign Contribution Limits: Overview” by the National Conference of State Legislators. By allowing nonprofits and super PACs to inject unlimited amounts of money into the political system, I believe it could allow for the ultrarich to isolate control. In addition, this is the perfect setup for political cronyism, as nothing is stopping people like billionaires from throwing as much money as it takes for their preferred party to nominate who they want to be elected.

A perfect example of this is Leonard Leo, a businessman, billionaire, and CEO who, according to a Oct. 11, 2023 article titled “We Don’t Talk About Leonard: The Man Behind the Right’s Supreme Court Supermajority” written by Andy Kroll, Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz for ProPublica, has influenced and assisted in the ascents of every conservative leaning Supreme Court justice on the bench. According to ProPublica, this was done through strategic donations, bribery, key endorsements and building mutually beneficial relationships with each judge, allowing him to be connected to nearly every ruling they make.

On the liberal side of the coin, the strategic investment company, Arabella Advisors, and its six nonprofits, The New Venture Fund, The Sixteen Thirty Fund, The Hopewell Fund, The Windward Fund, The North Fund and the Impetus Fund, have been funneling millions of dollars into various democrat causes, according to an article titled, “Arabella Advisors” by Influencewatch. According to Influencewatch, by billing themselves as a strategic investment firm, they collude with these nonprofits who hire them as a consultant. This way, they can funnel money to and from each nonprofit, leaving it nearly untraceable back to the initial donors. Some of the places this money has gone include multiple faux reputable news sites on Facebook that reported fake controversies during the 2020 election, hundreds of millions of dollars to blue state election offices on behalf of Mark Zuckerberg and scrubbing information, tracing Arabella back to the Biden administration, from D.C. based news networks. Because of this, The Atlantic called Arabella the second largest dark money donor in the 2020 election.

Overall, I see dark money, while not illegal, representing the greatest sin of modern American politics, complacency. We, as Americans, like to think that our political system is just and fair, representing us in equal measure with everyone else. However, this is a fantasy. Until the American people understand who influences our leaders and the processes by which they get elected, we will never truly be represented. These donations are hidden, and I believe it is for a reason. As citizens, it is our job to hold the 1% of our country accountable, the same way we hold our leaders. To do that, we can use the greatest resource we have, social media. By informing others of these political dealings and outing those who try to take part in them, we as Americans can start to hold our political system accountable to us.