Report: 'Dark money' pours into Michigan elections

By Sam Inglot

A lot of money coupled with little transparency paints troubling picture for 2012 Michigan elections

Tuesday, June 25 — More than $200 million was spent in Michigan during the 2012 Michigan elections for state offices, judgeships and education board seats, according to a recent report. But nearly $18.3 million was spent on political television ads — money that doesn’t need to be reported to the state, which the report called “dark money.”

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign finance analysis group, published the annual report, “A Citizen’s Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance,” which covers the finances of Michigan political campaigns, donors, political action committees and political parties.

According to the report, since 2000, the MCFN accounted “more than $88 million in candidate-focused television ads” — money that does not need to be reported to the Michigan Bureau of Elections.

“We are victims of an anachronistic interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act that allows unaccountable dark money to dominate our politics,” Rich Robinson, of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said in a statement. “Citizens should have the right to know whose money is driving critically important election outcomes, so they can evaluate how campaign spending correlates to policy outcomes.”

Spending on television ads does not need to be reported to the state because it is considered “issue advertising,” the report says. As long as the ads don’t endorse a particular candidate, they are considered “voter education,” not campaign expenditures. However, the ads usually attack a candidate and question their ability to hold office.

Of the $24.4 million spent on Michigan House races, roughly $2.3 million was spent on unreported television ads. In the Michigan Supreme Court races, unreported television ads made up the majority of the over $18.9 million spent during the election at nearly $13.9 million.

Political parties play a major roll in the influx of dark money into Michigan elections. The Michigan Republican Party spent $7.1 million on Michigan House and Supreme Court races in unreported television ads, according to the report, while the Michigan Democratic Party spent $8.1 million. There is no public record of where the contributions to that spending came from.

According to the report, the MCFN compiled the expenditures by digging through the public records of state television broadcasters and cable systems.

The influx of money into unreported television ads is coupled with the record-breaking spending of state political campaigns. Locally, two races topped the list of the most expensive races for House seats.

In the 71st District, which covers most of Eaton County, Republican incumbent Deb Shaughnessy lost to her Democratic challenger Rep. Theresa Abed. It was the most expensive house race in the state at a total cost of $1.4 million. In the 67th House District, which covers Mason, the race between Republican Jeff Oesterle and Democratic Rep. Tom Cochran totaled over $542,000. Cochran won in a race that was the eighth most expensive House race in the state.

The ballot this year was flush with proposals, many of which would have amended the state’s constitution. In total, the various ballot committees who opposed and supported the proposals spent $154.3 million, which, according to the report, “smashed” previous spending records. Proposal 2 spending, which would’ve enshrined collective bargaining into the state’s constitution, was the most expensive at about $46.9 million.

To view the report in it’s entirety click here.