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Anonymous Money Flooding American Politics

PHOTO: In the five years since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, analysis shows that American elections have become increasingly influenced by big, anonymous political donations.
PHOTO: In the five years since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, analysis shows that American elections have become increasingly influenced by big, anonymous political donations.
January 22, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. - In the five years since the Citizens United decision, big anonymous money has grown increasingly important in the American political system and observers say it shows no sign of slowing. The Center for Public Integrity has been monitoring spending by the big, outside groups empowered by Citizens United to buy ads with huge, anonymous donations.

Michael Beckel, reporter with the center, says the groups funded more than 20 percent of the ads in the most fiercely contested of last year's Senate races.

"One out of every four TV ads in some of the hottest U.S. Senate races," says Beckel. "Were paid for by groups that the public has no idea who's behind them."

Beckel says the groups likely will make next year's presidential-year elections intensely negative, and hugely expensive. In the 2010 Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled political donations are a protected form of free speech.

Beckel says one impact of the decision made five years ago this week has been to make campaigns more negative and more dependent on TV ads. He says this is because a campaign can let the outside groups do the dirty work and deny any responsibility.

"These groups are often used as attack dogs," says Beckel. "The candidates can still go around shaking people's hands, kissing babies, and these outside groups can be on the airwaves with negative attack ads."

According to a new report from the nonpartisan group Common Cause, the big anonymous donations have given millionaires and billionaires greater influence over elections. It found they had more impact on issues that range from minimum wage and gun control to climate change and having an open Internet.

Some states, notably California, have increased disclosure requirements. Beckel says that could eventually offer a way to modify the impact of the outside groups' spending.

"If there is a good idea in the states, then that will percolate up and enter part of the national conversation," he says.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA