MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama State Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decator) wants to put the question of ‘dark money’ regulation to the voters. His bill, SB 356, proposes an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama requiring the state to regulate the disclosure of the raising and spending of money that may influence elections and governmental actions.
Dark money is a term that describes funds given to nonprofit organizations; primarily 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) groups. These groups can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions, and spend funds to influence elections, but are not required to disclose their donors. The rise of so-called dark money has been tied to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United where the Court ruled that corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates per the First Amendment.
“We’ve seen them pop up here in the last several years and the public has the right to know whose money is this. These groups that are now engaging in electioneering,” Orr said in an interview. “If they’re going to engage in electioneering activities in Alabama, I believe the public has a right to know who the donors are.”
According to Orr, the proposed amendment was a reaction to the 2014 and 2010 election cycles, where dark money groups paid for ads supporting or attacking candidates. “They sent out mailers attacking candidates, gave to candidates’ campaigns, engaged in all the usual activities of a PAC but they were not registered as a PAC,” Orr said. “Right now it’s just a black hole. We don’t know where the money for that organization came from.”
Orr’s bill is opposed by the conservative/libertarian group FreedomWorks, which is a 501(c)(4) political organization. Spokesman Jason Pye stated that the bill would “having a chilling effect on political speech,” and is very similar to plans of the Democrats and Bernie Sanders in Washington D.C.
Nationwide in 2014, the biggest dark-money spenders were groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, the League of Conservation Voters, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL Pro-Choice America. In 2012, nationwide dark money amounted to roughly $311 million. But total election-related spending that year was $7.3 billion—which means dark money accounted for only 4 percent of the total.
An an Alabama Policy Institute debate on money in politics last year, Hans Von Spakovsky, a Huntsville native and researcher at the Heritage Foundation, argued that these types of donor disclosures of private donations constitute a chilling effect on free speech and a violation of privacy.
Spakovsky cited the firing of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich after the dating site OK Cupid publicized Eich’s donation to Prop. 8, a California ballot initiative that barred same-sex marriage in the Golden State. “There are a lot of Americans that can’t afford to have their opinions known,” he added.
“Transparency is about us trying to keep an eye on what the government is doing, not about the government keeping an eye on what we’re doing,” Spakovsky said.
If Orr’s Amendment makes it to the ballot, the text would appear as follows:
“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to require the state to regulate the disclosure of the raising and spending of money that may influence elections and governmental actions.
The summary would be followed with the option to select either yes or no.