The Decency Divide – A Money Problem

Get that money out and you might begin to heal this decency divide

By Roger Fleming

Many Americans and Montanans were worried about fraud in the 2020 elections. They should have been – but maybe not for the reasons you’d think.

In 2006, two candidates vying for Montana’s U.S. Senate seat spent a combined total of $14 million – approximately 20% of which came from outside Montana. This year, the various efforts to win Montana’s U.S. Senate seat spent a combined total of about $190 million – approximately 75% of which came from outside of Montana — over 10 times that expended in 2006.

All those clever, confusing, and often factually inaccurate, political ads that Montanans had little choice but to see or hear over and over again were paid for with money provided mostly by Super PACs from California, New York and Washington, D.C. It’s commonly referred to as dark money because it’s ultimately untraceable and no longer limited by any amount per donor. So thousands of ads paid for by people who don’t live here hit the state’s airwaves this year in order to impact who represents Montana in the U.S. Senate.

Is that fraud? Not legally speaking. Is it fraudulent – practically speaking? What do you think?

Over $190 million flooded Montana in the Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Steve Daines Senate race to win votes in a state with just over 1 million people. That’s a lot of money per person – maybe the highest per capita cost per vote in the country. Is that fraudulent? Again, not in a legal sense, but it is worth asking the question: At what point does the majority of $190 million in dark money from California, New York and Washington spent on name-calling, derision and factual distortion to influence votes in Montana begin to smack of deception, at least from an electoral perspective?

Many of us have become accustomed to disrespect, a lack of dignity and even lying in our politics today, but do we have to abide people outside of our state attacking people within our state running to represent us in the U.S. Congress? There’s no law against people attempting to influence votes in any state they wish. But an organization’s ability to absolutely overwhelm any state’s airwaves and political discourse with disinformation became an easy reality in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United v FEC, wiping away decades of campaign finance laws.

Due to that decision, unions, corporations and others are allowed to contribute unlimited amounts of money to organizations to fund efforts for or against candidates for federal office. Thus were born Super PACs funded in large part by 501(c)(4)s and LLCs that are not required to report their specific donors to anyone. This dark money comes from liberal and conservative groups – in key 2020 Senate races across the country, the tide changed and liberals actually outspent conservative candidates. The impact of this money is to define both parties’ candidates as extreme and out of touch. These millions are paid to consultants whose job is to write negative ads – and the more money available, the more those ads will flourish.

Get that money out and you might begin to heal this decency divide. As fictional lobbyist Nick Taft says in the novel, Outsider Rules, “It’s the growing untraceable money … and the more of it these groups are able to raise and offer, the more they’ll become the only path to political office. It’s like watching a slow dying forest.” For my full take on outside money, visit www.outsiderrules.com.

A former counsel on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Roger Fleming lives in Bozeman and is a lobbyist for small telecommunications companies.

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