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Dark Money Dominating Maine Elections

Mainers know far less about what is being spent to influence their vote today than they did nearly a decade ago. The difference is dramatic, and it’s leaving even some candidates in the dark about whether their constituents truly support them.

Back in 2006, about $100,000 was spent in Maine legislative races by outside groups that did not disclose their donors. Most of the spending, about $1.4 million, was disclosed. Eight years later, in 2014, fully disclosed spending had nearly tripled, to just under $4 million, but undisclosed, or so-called dark money spending, had exploded by more than a hundred fold, to around $11 million.

“There is the big spenders that disclose and that disclosure information is not easily accessible, and there’s the big spenders that don’t disclose, and that is just a black hole. So voters are often times left with not necessarily knowing who to believe,” says Bowdoin College government professor Michael Franz.

Franz says when most spending flowed through candidate committees, voters could more easily figure out who was trying to gain influence with a lawmaker, at either the state or federal level.

Colby College government professor Tony Corrado, who has studied campaign financing across the country, says U.S. Supreme Court rulings such as Citizens United have opened the door to virtually unlimited spending, without any disclosure requirements.

“It allowed not just corporations or wealthy individuals or even labor unions, but also nonprofit corporations and organizations, to spend unlimited amounts of money in these races,” he says.

Corrado says party committees and some political action committees do disclose their donors, but some groups do not have to make public the names of donors. Those groups are increasing their spending on races from the White House to the State House.

Corrado notes that most of that influence comes in the form of negative ads, as was the case in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District two years ago.

“We had over $3 million in outside spending in 2014, and $2.5 million of that was spent opposing one of the candidates or the other. I expect we will see the same type of campaigning this year,” he says.

And many candidates are concerned about how all all of that independent spending may or may not line up with the issues they are pushing as part of their campaigns.

UMaine political scientist Mark Brewer says they also have to decide whether to spend precious campaign funds to counter negative ads from the independent groups.

“You have to worry about it because you never can tell, despite all the research you do and predictions and data mining, what the electorate is going to look like on Election Day,” he says.

And Brewer says while disclosure is required by federal law for television and radio media advertising, the growing use of social media ads on Facebook and Twitter, for example, carries no similar requirement — and those advertising platforms are having an increasing effect on voters.

Franz says once elected to office, a candidate has to wonder if they were elected because of the positions they put forward, or because of the power of independent advertising expenditures.

“Was it because of the issues they advertised on and they are passionate about or is it because the issues that supportive groups advertised on? And they may be very different sets of issues, so a candidate doesn’t know if they have been given a mandate or just survived,” he says.

And Franz says that poses some serious questions for policymakers, as the same groups that spent dark money to influence their election go on to lobby them on legislation they are considering.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.