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Citizens United, Five Years Later: Dark Money in MI

PHOTO: Independent spenders poured money into the last Michigan governor's race at unprecedented levels, which one analyst says can be attributed to the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC ruling. Photo credit: DodgertonSkillhause/morguefile.com
PHOTO: Independent spenders poured money into the last Michigan governor's race at unprecedented levels, which one analyst says can be attributed to the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC ruling. Photo credit: DodgertonSkillhause/morguefile.com
January 21, 2015

LANSING, Mich. - We're now five years and several elections into the new era of campaign spending ushered in by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission. The ruling tossed out limits on how much wealthy interests can contribute to political campaigns, and one analyst says the impact can be seen clearly in Michigan.

Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, says while there has always been so-called "dark money" in Michigan politics, Citizens United was a game-changer.

"When people are writing five, six, seven-figure checks, they're doing so for considerations," says Robinson. "Whether it be they're looking for a contract, or they're looking for the reward of somebody who shares their ideology."

Robinson points to the most recent gubernatorial campaign, in which he says the candidates accounted for a total of $21 million in spending, with independent money coming in at nearly double that amount, $40 million. Robinson says this level of dominance by independent groups that, for the most part, don't have to disclose their identities, had not previously been seen in a Michigan campaign.

The big problem with losing transparency in political spending, says Robinson, is citizens lose their edge against corruption. What he sees as an equally large problem with the Citizens United ruling is how little voter outrage it has prompted.

"So far, the officeholders feel like they've gotten a free ride on this," says Robinson. "I don't know that they've encountered much objection from the public, and the public needs to express that objection."

Today concerned citizens in many states, including Michigan, will host events and rallies to mark the fifth anniversary of the watershed ruling. In Ann Arbor, the group "Reclaim Our American Democracy" holds a screening and discussion of the film "Citizen Koch" at 7 p.m. at the Mallets Creek Branch Library.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - MI