State legislators might have a little extra incentive to do something about nameless groups that pour dark money into elections to affect their outcomes: their own political hides.
If elections set for Tuesday in the Charleston area are a hint of the political future, state House and Senate candidates in 2020 should get ready to be hammered by nasty direct mail pieces. The way out? Rein in dark money.
“Public officials have lost elections in the face of well-funded attacks by organizations known only by some meaningless name made up for the occasion,” said Columbia resident Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina. “Their motives may have little or nothing to do with the claims that are made in the ad, with the public interest or with the concerns of the voters reading the ads.”
In Charleston, a group that won’t disclose its donors has been sending outright smears that target Mayor John Tecklenburg, now running for a second four-year term. Here’s how silly they are: They accuse him of not “fixing flooding,” even though he’s the guy who reached out to the world’s experts (the Dutch) to start a dialogue to figure out ways to, ahem, fix flooding. At the same time, the city is pumping millions of dollars into infrastructure projects to get periodic floodwater off streets and property.
Does the truth matter to these nabobs of negativism? Not one iota. They just want to trick voters into voting for someone else.
To illustrate how this mess filters down — and how it should worry state legislators — look at a city council race on the peninsula. Earlier this year, two challengers and the incumbent agreed to run positive campaigns. But two groups — or maybe one group using two fake names — weren’t having any of that.
The “Committee to Have Our Voices Heard” mailed a flyer to get voters to use race to choose a candidate. Another group, the “Committee for Leadership Integrity,” showed a complete lack of integrity with a mailer that was a personal attack.
“This type of politics is the last thing we need right now,” candidate Jason Sakrun wrote in the Charleston City Paper. “I think it’s critically important those seeking political office and those in office denounce them. There is no place for them in our political discourse.”
Dirty politics won’t go away anytime soon. They’ve been around a long time. In the election of 1800, when Vice President Thomas Jefferson was running against President John Adams, things got ugly pretty quickly. “Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward,” according to Mental Floss.
Today, it’s unacceptable to do nothing about the insidious, anonymous dark money infecting our democracy. South Carolina legislators must stop kicking the can down the road and approve measures that have been introduced for years to get something done.
“Unlike the federal government and 48 other states, South Carolina doesn’t even require disclosure of donors to groups that openly admit that their primary purpose is to influence our votes,” Teague said.
The simple fix, she suggested, is to reinstate a state law declared unconstitutionally vague to ensure that it refers “specifically to groups that have as their ‘major purpose’ the nomination, election or defeat of particular candidates.”
Such wordsmithing is in a bill by S.C. Rep. Gary Clary, a Republican from Clemson, and has been passed by a House committee. Another bill by Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a Democrat from Lancaster, seeks to control nefarious independent expenditures by groups that do more than try to fool voters. That measure, too, has passed the House. Now, the state Senate needs to stop fiddling around and pass both bills to stop unnamed people from trying to impact elections with questionable money.
“Until our laws catch up with the flood of dark money drowning our elections, voters should reject any campaign ad from unknown sources,” Teague said. “If it isn’t from an organization that you know and have reason to trust, consider the source — people who don’t want you to know what they are doing and why. That can’t be good.”
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report.
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