Dark money is pouring into U.S. elections, but the vast majority of it is not being disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.
The 2022 election cycle has already attracted more than $115 million in contributions from and spending by 501(c) groups reported to the FEC, OpenSecrets’ new analysis found.
Many of the top spenders on so-called “issue” ads that mention candidates are politically-active nonprofits that do not disclose their donors. Issue ads aired on TV or radio are only required to be disclosed in the weeks leading up to an election, and online ads that avoid expressly advocating for an election outcome are not required to be disclosed at all.
Nonprofits that do not disclose their donors reported less than $3 million of their independent spending to the FEC during the 2022 election cycle as of May 19.
Most of the spending on these issue ads has not been disclosed to the FEC because they do not explicitly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate within the weeks leading up to an election.
One top dark money spender that has yet to disclose any spending to the FEC is American Action Network, a 501(c) nonprofit aligned with House Republican leadership. According to analyses by OpenSecrets and the Wesleyan Media Project, the group has spent more than $9.5 million on TV ads mentioning House candidates and about $800,000 on Facebook ads during the 2022 cycle – none of which have been disclosed to the FEC.
In addition to its own spending this cycle, American Action Network has given more than $11.5 million to Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Republicans that shares staff and resources with the dark money group.
Senate Republican leadership’s dark money group, One Nation, has also poured millions of dollars into 2022 elections but has yet to disclose any spending to the FEC. The dark money group has spent over $2.8 million this cycle on TV ads and hundreds of thousands of dollars on digital ads tracked by OpenSecrets.
One Nation has avoided disclosing their spending to the FEC by framing the advertising as issue advocacy, as the ads attack Democratic incumbents without explicitly advocating for their election or defeat. One Nation has also given $14.4 million to Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that shares staff and resources with the dark money group. The dark money group makes up the majority of the super PAC’s funding, ultimately leaving the donors fueling Senate Leadership Fund undisclosed.
During the 2020 election cycle, One Nation did not disclose any spending to the FEC but poured about $125 million into political contributions and ads — more untraceable money than any other dark money group.
Dark money groups aligned with Democratic party leadership have also poured millions of dollars into influencing 2022 elections.
Congressional Democrats’ dark money group, House Majority Forward, has spent more than $2.3 million on TV ads, according to figures from the Wesleyan Media Project, and $453,000 on Facebook ads.
Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC received $14.3 million from Majority Forward, a dark money group that shares the super PAC’s staff and resources. Majority Forward has spent more than $2.1 million on TV ads and about $250,000 on Facebook ads during the 2022 cycle.
While some of the Facebook ads are through Majority Forward’s own Facebook page, the group also pays for ads on regional-themed pages. Most recently, Majority Forward became the sole funder of about $74,000 in digital advertising for Nevada Unido, a Facebook page created in March that has mostly boosted Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) with messages about how the senator is “standing up for victims of human trafficking “and “working to protect our communities and fighting for a strong Nevada economy.”
The Flood of Dark Money After Citizens United
The 2022 election cycle’s ad spending and political contributions by nonprofits that do not disclose their donors follows a decade of rising spending by politically-active nonprofits.
Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United opinion, federal elections have attracted more than $2 billion in spending and contributions from nonprofits operating under section 501(c) of the tax code, the majority of that coming from dark money groups that do not disclose their donors.
The number of 501(c)(4) organizations registered with the IRS increased precipitously after 2010, the year Citizens United was decided, as did the number of 501(c)(4) organizations reporting political activity in Form 990 tax records.
Just 82 organizations operating under 501(c)(4) of the tax code reported political activity to the IRS in a Form 990 for the 2008 fiscal year, and 56 reported political activity during the 2009 political year. In the 2010 fiscal year, and every year OpenSecrets has tracked since, the number of organizations operating under 501(c)(4) of the tax code reporting political activity in a Form 990 has exceeded 100.
While 501(c) spending reported to the FEC makes up only a portion of the multibillion dollar spending documented in recent election cycles, more money has poured in through ad spending that is not required to be disclosed to the FEC. Those groups also increased their contributions to political committees such as super PACs or Carey committees.
During the 2010 election cycle, 501(c) organizations gave under $7 million in political contributions to federal groups. In the 2020 election cycle, political contributions from 501(c) groups topped $723 million.
The 2020 election cycle also saw record gray money spending, which is spending on elections by groups funded in part by shell companies and 501(c) groups that do not disclose their donors. The vast majority of 2020 dark money was channeled through donations from 501(c) nonprofits to outside groups like super PACs that are legally required to disclose their donors. Despite being required to disclose their donors, super PACs can just disclose a 501(c) or shell company as their contributor, hiding the ultimate source of funding.
Overall, 501(c) groups poured more than $820 million into influencing 2020 federal elections — most of that from groups that do not disclose their donors.
Including contributions from shell corporations formed as limited-liability companies as well as 501(c) groups, the 2020 election alone attracted more than $1 billion in total dark money, though only a small portion of that was reported as spending to the FEC.
Only about $79 million in spending during the 2020 cycle was reported by 501(c) groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. Super PACs funded entirely or almost entirely by dark money groups reported over $38 million more in spending, according to an OpenSecrets analysis.
The Risk of Foreign Influence
One concern some have raised is that these dark money groups provide a vehicle for foreign interests to quietly influence U.S. elections.
At a Senate Judiciary Finance Subcommittee on Taxation and IRS Oversight hearing on “Laws and Enforcement Governing Political Activities of Tax Exempt Entities” on May 4, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) emphasized the “concern of foreign money trying to influence our elections.”
“There’s a really big risk of foreign money. I saw it at the Federal Election Commission,” former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel told Whitehouse at the hearing, adding “the failure to have better disclosure in this situation is really significant.”
While the lack of disclosure makes it nearly impossible to get a comprehensive total of how much dark money comes from foreign sources, OpenSecrets has tracked several 501(c) organizations that have reported foreign activities and foreign fundraising in their tax returns during the same year they reported political activity — raising the stakes even further.
Foreign nationals are prohibited from giving money to influence U.S. elections but are able to give unlimited sums to politically active nonprofits and even fund issue advocacy ads that may mention a candidate so long as the ads do not call for a candidate’s election or defeat.
Nonprofits reporting foreign activities include dark money groups that spent tens of millions of dollars to influence U.S. elections in recent years.
The National Rifle Association started reporting foreign fundraising in 2018 and continued to disclose foreign program activities through its most tax return filed last year. During the same years it reported spending on foreign fundraising, the NRA spent $9.5 million on 2018 elections and $29.3 million on 2020 elections.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has received revenue from foreign corporations that are dues-paying members. In some of the most recent years it reported foriegn revenue and program services, the Chamber spent nearly $11 million on 2018 elections and $5.7 million on 2020 elections.
Despite the risk, a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that the IRS doesn’t check nonprofit tax records for signs of illegal foreign money in U.S. elections. The finding was used to justify a policy change under the former President Donald Trump’s administration that now enables 501(c) nonprofits — including politically active dark money groups – to no longer report donor names or addresses to the tax agency unless they are requested under court order or as part of an examination.
Former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel is an OpenSecrets board member but was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Finance Subcommittee on Taxation and IRS Oversight in a personal capacity.