Dark Money in Michigan Political Campaigns
Indivisible Leelanau Notes on Presentation by Craig Mauger, Executive Director of Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN)
Craig Mauger, Executive Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), spoke on dark money in politics to a group of interested citizens at a meeting of Leelanau Indivisible on Saturday, Feb 9, 2019, at the Leland Lodge in Leland, Michigan. Craig had experience as a reporter covering Lansing politics before taking over the Network in 2015. The MCFN is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that through their research seeks to shine a light on the role of money in Michigan politics, how campaign dollars are raised and spent.
Craig explained that only 12 legislative districts are truly competitive in Michigan and they can determine legislative make up. Because of this, and how close these districts are, swaying only a few hundred votes, can change everything. Having a third-party candidate in the race, supported by dark money, can change the result.
Craig explained how it is possible to hide who is really paying for political ads and mailings. As long as you don’t tell the public to vote for a particular candidate, disclosure of the source of the financing is not required by law. Often this is done by advocating for issues, or indicating who didn’t support a particular bill, without mentioning the candidate or opponent that the ad is really supporting. He provided examples of groups that have attacked a politician for his support of an issue in order to discourage others who might fear retribution if they do support it citing Citizens for Emerging Michigan Economy who spent at least $77K on political ads in this manner funded by Consumers Power.
The cost of campaigns in Michigan has been rising dramatically despite the fact that there are limits on how much individuals can give directly to candidates. It is also illegal for corporations and unions to give directly to candidates. These individuals and groups circumvent this law by using PACs to funnel large amounts of money to politicians. Candidates do run ads of their own, but the money for these ads must be disclosed. At the same time there are fewer and fewer reporters to investigate campaign spending. We must look to public filings of spending, on our own, such as Open Secrets.org and local county clerk’s offices where spending is largely recorded after the fact. In 2018, $300M total was spent on Michigan elections overall
It is not just Legislative candidates who are affected by dark money. It is also an issue in the races for Supreme Court judges and of course, races for governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
Craig told us that Michigan is ranked 50th for public integrity in campaign spending disclosure in a study by The Center for Public Integrity. The main reasons are that Michigan has no laws requiring public financial disclosure by elected officials or top bureaucrats and has no legislation that prevents lawmakers or top officials from going to work for corporations that are in a position to benefit from their official actions. We also exempt both the governor’s office and the legislature from FOIA requests.
Craig suggested that anyone interested in keeping track of the research done by MCFN should sign up for their emails at mcfn.org. The website is also a good source of information. If you wish to hear his presentation it is available at www.upnorthmedia.org/ccevent.asp?id=23675
The presentation on up north media is from a League of Women Voters meeting that he held in Traverse City a few months ago. Craig remains optimistic since there is strong movement forming
to affect change.