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During each election season, the American public’s televisions, radios, and the internet are flooded with campaign ads that attempt to sway our votes. These ads are everywhere, yet we know little about who funds them because they are often paid for by outside groups and financed through hidden donors.

Campaign spending financed with undisclosed funding sources is known as “secret money.” In a single election, it accounts for hundreds of millions of dollars. In the 2022 election alone, $295 million in secret money was spent, and of that, $142 million was used to fund advertisements for candidates.

Secret money keeps the public in the dark about who is bankrolling a political candidate.

Secret money keeps the public in the dark about who is bankrolling a political candidate. Without this knowledge, voters don’t have the information they need to make informed decisions at the polls. It is easy to imagine how wealthy special interest groups and foreign entities could use this kind of spending to disrupt the electoral process.

The threat to U.S. democracy grows with each election cycle. Congress can help interrupt this trend by passing the Disclose Act (S.512)—a federal campaign finance reform bill promoting transparency in campaign finance.

How did secret money become such a big problem?

By law, campaigns are required to report all donor contributions over $200 to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). Yet, secret money is able to enter elections because some non-profits (those with a 501(c)(4) tax status) are not required to disclose their funding sources.

Secret money has been present in U.S. elections for decades, but the scale of it has reached unprecedented levels since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission. This ruling permitted corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited money on ads for political candidates. Many outside groups started registering as 501(c)(4)s to covertly spend more money on ads. Since 2010, secret money contributions have accounted for $1.6 billion in campaign spending. The research group Open Secrets has found that for every ten dollars reported to the FEC, three dollars is secret money.

Keeping secret money out of elections is the key to keeping them free and fair.

Transparency in campaign spending strengthens the voices of ordinary voters. Voters can make informed decisions about candidates and at the polls, and we can hold politicians accountable for the donations they accept. Furthermore, transparency in campaign spending enables the FEC to track illegal contributions. Keeping secret money out of elections is the key to keeping them free and fair.

How can the Disclose Act limit secret money?

The Disclose Act (S.512), which was first introduced in 2010, would promote transparency in campaign spending by: 

  • Imposing vigorous transfer provisions that prevent political operatives from hiding donor identities behind front groups.
  • Requiring organizations to report campaign expenditures of more than $10,000 to the FEC within 24 hours.
  • Enforcing a “stand by every ad” provision, which would require all political ads, including online ads, to disclose funding sources.
  • Prohibiting foreign entities from making contributions to online campaign advertisements.

The Disclose Act has been introduced in every Congress since 2010. It has not yet been successfully passed. This does not mean that advocacy for this bill should end.

As long as secret money flows into our elections, our democracy is vulnerable. Our government should not be one where wealthy special interest groups and foreign entities have the strongest influence. The voices of ordinary voters, who best represent our communities, deserve to be heard the loudest.

To protect these voices, there must be more transparency in campaign finance. We can accomplish this by passing the Disclose Act (S.512).  

Staff: Michya Cooper

Michya Cooper

Program Assistant, Justice Reform and Election Integrity (2022-2023)

Michya Cooper is the Program Assistant for Justice Reform and Election Integrity team. She lobbies with José Woss, the director of justice reform, to advance FCNL’s lobbying goals of promoting a more restorative justice system and protecting the right to free and fair elections.