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By Laurie Liles, Cronkite News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Bethany Braley heads a nonprofit organization promoting cowboy culture, a job that has everything to do with preserving a slice of American heritage and nothing to do with politics.

But get the Prescott Valley, Ariz., resident talking about the current state of campaign finance, and it’s clear she has been giving politics a lot of thought lately.

Braley uses terms like “disgusting” to describe the record-setting influx of so-called dark money into this year’s elections, a trend that has left her feeling “dirty and personally degraded.”

“It seems to me it’s no longer a democracy,” said Braley, who says she make it a point to keep her politics out of her day job. “It’s a political machine dominated by the wealthy.”

Braley is not the only one who feels that way.

As dark-money spending reached what appeared to be record levels this fall, and with little sign of abating, polls showed staggeringly high numbers of Americans deeply troubled by the practice.

A recent bipartisan poll found that 80 percent of voters have a problem with what they see as “political operatives, wealthy donors and organizations abusing and taking advantage” of unclear IRS rules governing political activities of nonprofit organizations.

That worry stretched across party lines: 88 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of independents and 72 percent of Republicans in the poll were concerned about the consequences of unclear IRS rules for campaign spending.

The survey of 800 likely voters was conducted in late July for Public Citizen by Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners and its Republican counterparts at Chesapeake Beach Consulting.

“We were surprised by how robust the reaction was,” said Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, a consumer-rights advocacy nonprofit.

The technical term for the “dark money” groups that Braley and others are worried about is “social welfare” organization. Set up under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax code, nonprofit social welfare outfits can engage in political activities as long as they spend less than 50 percent of their funds on politics.

But unlike traditional campaign accounts, nothing in current campaign-finance or tax laws requires 501(c)(4) groups to make the names of their financial backers public — hence the “dark money” label.

The groups have their roots in the Eisenhower era, but became increasingly influential after recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — that chipped away at federal laws limiting outside election spending.

The result is a lot more money going to elections with a lot less certainty about where it came from.

“People agree the IRS should do rules that will deal with the issue,” said Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

“Disgust is at an all-time high with government, with the process,” she said. “People are more aware and more disenfranchised.

“It almost doesn’t matter what you talk about … people think it’s not working and they want it to work,” Gilbert said.

But some people disagree. Concerns about the influence of dark money are “significantly overblown” in the media and among the public at large, said Ilya Shapiro of the libertarian Cato Institute.

He said the public perception that Fortune 500 companies are buying elections is “100 percent wrong,” noting that for-profit corporations are reluctant to risk alienating candidates by getting involved in campaigns.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding … about how much money there is and how elections work,” said Shapiro, Cato’s senior fellow in constitutional studies. He noted that Americans typically spend more on Halloween candy than is spent on elections, for example.

Shapiro concedes that while “there might be some of that” activity where corporations contribute to politically active nonprofits, it is already possible to follow the money through publicly available corporate filings.

“You look at their accounting to see how much they spend on political campaigning or social welfare organizations, you can piece it together,” Shapiro said, rejecting calls for more reporting.

Some Arizona voters agree with Shapiro.

In a response to an online query from Cronkite News’ Public Insight Network, Julie Them of Peoria said mandatory disclosure of dark-money contributors “stifles freedom of expression and can be used to harass the donors by radicals.”

Tucson resident Bob Benzinger shares that worry.

“If it becomes unsafe, if you’re getting fired or harassed for your political opinions, you start to think anonymity is your preferred option,” he said.

Despite such worries, Gilbert and others cite the recent polls as evidence that voters consistently oppose the influence of money in politics and support solutions to curb it.

In a 2013 poll by MFour and Tulchin Research, for example, 92 percent of voters said it is important that “our elected leaders reduce the influence of money in political elections.”

“There is no question that Americans oppose the influence money has on our electoral system — from which candidates appear on the ballot to what elected officials do once in office,” said ReThink Media’s Scott Swenson in a memo summarizing several years’ worth of polling on the topic.

Braley said it became clear to her during this year’s campaigns that voters are “in a losing battle” against wealthy contributors who are bankrolling political advertisements.

Benzinger said that, on principle, he strongly supports the idea that political donors should be disclosed.

A retired Foreign Service officer with an accounting degree, one of his jobs at the State Department was inspecting embassies all over the world. He said his views on dark-money reforms are a product of that background.

“The devil’s in the details,” Benzinger said of proposals calling for more transparency in political donations.

“Whether I would be for it would depend on how it’s written and how it could be interpreted or abused.”
___
(Sources in the Public Insight Network informed the reporting in this story through a partnership with the Cronkite PIN Bureau.)

Photo: Protesters outside the Supreme Court in 2012 rally against the court’s decision in Citizens United, one of two rulings that has helped boost the influence of so-called “dark money” groups in elections. (Photo by Jordan Krueger via flickr/Creative Commons/Cronkite News Service/TNS)

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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Former president Donald Trump

By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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