Reporting campaign finance can be difficult because much of the action is obscured. Journalists have to rely on fairly unreliable government disclosure websites, many of which only report certain types of spending on an almost arbitrary schedule. To find the true number of television ads purchased in an election, one must literally visit every network station and request copies of records, a feat physically impossible for reporters with limited resources. Moreover, a vast portion of election spending, including big business-related efforts to encourage executives, employees, and others to vote for a particular candidate, is simply left off disclosures altogether.
The election this week in Wisconsin is a case in point. Media outlets were quick to report that Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate, was outspent about 7 or 8 to 1 in campaign spending by Gov. Scott Walker and his cohorts. But this total was calculated by adding up disclosed campaign accounts in addition to television and radio spending estimated by independent analysts, like Kantar Media. This is not the whole picture.
Elections can be bought using a number of tactics that elude traditional campaign disclosure. For instance, as we reported, Americans for Prosperity, a group financed largely by Koch Industries executives Charles and David Koch, bused activists from Illinois into Wisconsin to help canvass and encourage Wisconsin voters to support Walker. Americans for Prosperity provided food and voter lists, and came prepared with a large staff of political operatives to guide these volunteers into battleground areas of the state, with one large effort conducted the weekend before the recall vote. As the Sunlight Foundation notes, the following video from Americans for Prosperity shows the group directing volunteering, overseeing phone calls to voters, and even distributing door-hangers to remind voters to support Walker:
These efforts undoubtedly boosted Walker, and were clearly designed as campaign expenditures; but because Americans for Prosperity is organized as an education charity, not a single dime of these bus tours are catalogued anywhere as election spending. In 2010, Americans for Prosperity simultaneously ran several nation-wide bus tours and get out the vote operations — including offers of free food and gift cards to volunteers — to help elect pro-big business Republicans to the House of Representatives. Two years after the midterm election, we discovered at least $3.9 million in unreported electioneering, mostly on the bus tours. Again, not a dime of these electioneering efforts were registered or disclosed.
Other big business fronts, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents big banks and multinational corporations, have large voter turnout efforts that are deployed every election season to get out the vote. According to Cleta Mitchell, a leading Republican attorney advising various corporate fronts, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision gives legal entities like the Chamber and Americans for Prosperity wide leeway to communicate on any issue and engage politically however they see fit — even in terms of pressuring employees, vendors, and customers about elections. However, there is virtually no disclosure when it comes to voter mobilization (and still very few rules on more traditional electioneering, like television, radio and Internet ads).
Big business groups also benefit from FEC rules that only capture "issue-ad" attack commercials in certain 30-day and 60-day windows. Corporations, like the big oil-backed American Petroleum Institute, have used the new campaign finance landscape to fund radio ads aimed at U.S. Senate candidates this year. But these ads escape notice by the FEC because of their clever timing, which is always outside the FEC window.
In contrast, labor unions face double disclosure: Every dime they spend must be reported to both the Federal Elections Commission and the Department of Labor. This means, when a union uses a bus tour or member to member communication drive to get out the vote, these costs are disclosed. Big business groups that behave in the same way face almost no such disclosures. Websites that run exclusively on reported campaign expenses, like OpenSecrets.org, artificially deflate the amount spent by big business because only limited disclosures are available. This disparity makes unions appear more politically powerful than they really are.
The problem is not only Republican. Some Democrats have leaned on big business-supported secret money efforts to get elected. The American Chemistry Council, which is funded by major chemical companies, has radically embraced electioneering efforts since 2010, most of them secret, to support pro-chemical industry politicians in both parties.
Disclosure should apply to everyone mobilizing and spending significant amounts in an election, regardless of ideology. Groups like League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote play an important role in registering voters. But Rock the Vote, for example, has a budget of less than $3 million, while corporate lobby associations like the Chamber, the National Association of Manufacturers, PHRMA, the Chemistry Council, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Association of Realtors, the Business Roundtable, the American Crossroads network, American Hospital Association, Motion Picture Association, Recording Industry Association, Financial Services Roundtable, American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups that can now spend unlimited amounts in our elections have a combined budget of $3-4 billion, according to our analysis.
If we knew how much the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Association, or Americans for Prosperity, or the "Prosperity Project," or any number of big business-funded groups spent in the Wisconsin recall election, we would have a better picture of who really influenced the vote. It's conceivable that Walker's allies in fact mustered a 15 to 1 spending advantage if we knew how much big business spent on canvassing and other "field" operations.
The American public has a right to know who is buying our politicians. It isn't enough for reporters to rely on campaign ad totals or other disclosed amounts. We have to dig deeper to get the truth.