Election Reform Still Desperately Needed, Keep Big Money and Smear Campaigning Out of Elections

Since Citizens United v Federal Election Commission “outside spending” (outside of political campaigns) sources have undermined fair elections through big interest spending and smear campaigning. Outside spending sources include mostly Super PACs and political nonprofits that collectively are referred to as “dark money” sources.

In just this 2020 election cycle, groups organized as super PACS have reported receipts over $1 billion as of July 21, 2020, and other independent expenditures (like political nonprofits) reported $240 million. This is the magnitude of heavy-weight spending and influence “outside spending” sources have and will use in mostly the biggest races – presidential, senate-congress, governor, and large municipal contests like mayor throughout the United States.

Super PACS (technically known as independent expenditure-only committees) have the power to raise unlimited sums of money to spend on elections, either advocating for their candidate or by attacking their candidate’s opponent(s). Monies donated to super PACS can come from just about anyone (billionaires), usually corporations, unions, and associations. Super PACs have three requirements: they must report their donors to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), cannot donate directly to campaigns, and must not be working in coordination with a candidate’s campaign (who stands to benefit from their efforts). But political nonprofits, arguably the “darkest source of political money” are not required to publicly disclose their donors. These types of support are believed to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent elections and have never been forced to reveal where their money came from.

Both major political parties (Democrats and Republicans) have their liberal and conservative super PACS as a matter of political reality and candidate electability.

Some Democrat politicians (of big races) have criticized super PACs’ influence; some even vowing not to receive donations from dark money sources, but eventually succumb as their campaigns run out of money. Democrats have even called for campaign reform, wanting the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Citizens United.

Republicans have been unapologetic about not only receiving super PAC money but have resisted most campaign reform initiatives brought up in Congress. The main reason is relative to Democrat candidates, Republicans do not have as much financial support from individuals and mostly rely on large donors.

The basic conundrum is – super PACS should be limited to lessen big interest groups’ uneven influence in elections over regular, unorganized voting citizens; but how is this possible when a candidate must get elected in a game where super PACS are helping every other candidate?

The most glaring example of this just happened in this year’s primary election for president. Almost all Democrats in the beginning of the race tried to keep outside spending sources limited, some even vowing not to receive any super PAC help (Warren, but she eventually did in the late game). Only the two billionaires (Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg) received no super PAC assistance; and Bernie Sanders (mostly funded by individual donors), had minimum help.

Democrat presidential candidates wanted to make a major break from what happened in the 2016 Republican primary, where nonprofit political groups and super PACs bankrolled that election.

But one by one, Democrat presidential hopefuls succumbed, reversing their position. Political strategists called the early pledge as a futile exercise anyway, knowing very well that in the General, in order to defeat Donald Trump, the Democrat standard-bearer would need support from super PACS.

Added to this, candidates have no legal ability to stop a super PAC from forming and supporting them even if they disavowed super PACS – that was the basic premise of Citizens United, that super PACS had the right to endorse candidates as part of freedom of speech and expression.

Until the law is changed, this is the political reality of elections.

Smear campaign
The ugliest side of outside source campaigning is found in smear political attacks. It used to be that negative and smear advertising (all forms from paper to digital) could be linked to a political candidate’s campaign. This kept a check on negative attacks because candidates would be held accountable for whatever material was put out.

Today’s modern elections, there is no such accountability because outside sources will do all the dirty work for a candidate (remember super PACS legally cannot work in coordination with campaigns). And super PACs and non-profit political groups have nothing to lose except the possibility of being sued for defamation, later.

Locally, the most egregious example came when former Gov. Ben Cayetano ran for Honolulu Mayor in an attempt to stop the rail project. He faced a barrage of smear advertising from then PRP Hawaii (pro-rail PAC) and it is believed by many Cayetano lost that 2012 race because of PRP.

PRP spent nearly $2 million on negative advertising targeting Cayetano in allegations that the former governor was corrupt and broke the law while he was in office. After the mayoral election, Cayetano sued PRP which agreed to settle out of court. The financial settlement went to Cayetano’s favorite charities and required that PRP make a formal apology.

As of press time (July 28), it’s alleged by some voters that 2020 mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya is the latest target of smear campaigning. Facts in the alleged smear have yet to be unproven, but the accusations by a PAC sent out by mailer, texts, and eventually covered by local media, were called by Amemiya’s campaign as false and misleading. How much of an impact this latest smear will have has yet to be determined.

Until election reform is tightened and the influence of outside political sources is put in check, there is no immediate remedy to smear-negative campaigning by PACs. Such speech is protected (unless deemed slander in a court of law…after an election, which is why smear-campaigns are almost always launched close to election day).

But we can be educated voters. Question sources and rely on media sources as best possible. Should questionable material arise with respect to a candidate of your choice, do your homework and see where that leads. Definitely, don’t take the material in smear campaigns at face value. Do your own research and be an enlightened voter!

Please remember to vote! Empower yourself and your community.

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