Washington, DC – Unregulated, undisclosed spending made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has left local communities defenseless against big money national organizations intent on interfering with their elections, according to a report released today by Public Citizen.
In its report, “Outside Spenders, Local Elections,” Public Citizen outlines several relatively obscure local elections that the 501(c)(4) group Americans for Prosperity sought to influence. The report chronicles six elections in which Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, drowned out local issues to pursue its own agenda.
According to its website, Americans for Prosperity purports to work on several broad policy and issue areas, including reducing government spending, weakening regulations and making changes to the judicial system.
“Elections – particularly local elections – shouldn’t be a playground for millionaires and billionaires,” said Adam Crowther, author of the report and a researcher for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “In its obsession with establishing purported rights of billionaires, the Supreme Court weakened the voices of ordinary Americans, even on issues that were purely local.”
In at least one election, local residents lamented that issues that actually mattered were being pushed aside because of the involvement of Americans for Prosperity.
Although Americans for Prosperity does operate state affiliates, the affiliates are funded by the national group. In 2012, several state affiliate directors were among the highest paid employees of the national group.
Even though the identities of Americans for Prosperity’s donors remain secret, details that are disclosed to the public reveal that it is heavily reliant on a handful of giant donors. Of the group’s $115 million in 2012 revenue, nearly 78 percent came from donors who gave at least $1 million. Top donors gave $26 million, $21 million, $11 million, $10 million and $7 million, according to Americans for Prosperity’s 2012 990 tax form.
“The ultimate solution to this outside money problem as exemplified by Americans for Prosperity’s spending is a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to place practical and reasonable limits on how money is raised and spent on our elections,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The fact that a few billionaires can use their massive fortunes to dictate the debate surrounding our elections is dangerous to our democracy. We urge Congress to pass such an amendment and to move interim solutions around transparency on dark money spending.
“In addition, the People’s Pledge – used to great effect by Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren to keep outside money out of their Senate race – is a tool that can be used to curb negative ads bought by groups not associated with the candidates.”
Here are several local elections in which Americans for Prosperity involved itself:
- Kenosha, Wis., school board. In 2014, citing the school board’s willingness to negotiate with the local teacher’s union, Americans for Prosperity paid for canvassing and phone banking. Americans for Prosperity’s preferred candidates won each open seat.
- Douglass County, Colo., school board. In 2013, Americans for Prosperity spent $350,000 on a county school board race to maintain the composition of the sitting board, which had taken steps to weaken teachers unions.
- Lakeview, Minn., mayor’s race. Matt Little, a city councilor who ran for mayor of Lakeview, Minn., in 2012, was accused by Americans for Prosperity of supporting unions when Little voted to preserve a part-time electrician job. Little won his race.
- Coralville, Iowa, city elections. Americans for Prosperity became involved in this 19,000-person town over debt the town had acquired to finance development projects. Each of Americans for Prosperity’s preferred candidates lost.
- Columbus, Ohio, zoo tax. In 2014, residents of Columbus, Ohio, voted on a levy that would raise property taxes to fund the Columbus Zoo. Americans for Prosperity reportedly spent more than $20,000 opposing the levy, which failed.
- Iron County, Wis., county board. Americans for Prosperity became involved in elections to the county board. The 6,000-person county was a proposed site of an open pit iron mine. Americans for Prosperity sent out mailers opposing several county board candidates, calling them “anti-mining radicals.”