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Why Dark Money in Politics Is Bad for Women

Supporting modest reform like the DISCLOSE Act would, in normal times, be an easy political win for Republicans.

With a voting public largely disgusted by the new freedom of corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, supporting a modest version of reform like the version of the DISCLOSE Act working its way through Congress would, in normal times, be an easy political win for Republicans.

But these are not normal times. For the second time this year Senate Democrats tried to advance a bill that would have forced disclosure of unlimited secret campaign spending and the second time Republican leaders blocked a vote on the DISCLOSE Act.

Republican lawmakers have a host of weapons at their disposal in the battle over women’s reproductive rights, but no weapon may have as much impact as unlimited campaign spending. How do we know that dark money is a key to a Republican anti-woman, anti-family agenda? Just look how hard they are fighting to protect it.

The DISCLOSE Act would have required any independent group that spends more than $10,000 on campaign ads during an election cycle to file a report identifying any donors who gave $10,000 or more. Historically Republicans have supported disclosure laws in part because they were viewed as less onerous forms of campaign finance reform than say, spending limits. To get a sense of how hard Republicans have flipped on this issue, 14 of the Republican senators who helped filibuster this last vote supported a nearly identical disclosure bill in 2000.

Campaign finance reform and the issue of unlimited secret money flooding our elections is an issue of immediate importance to women. The effort to break the back of our public unions, a backbone of women’s economic empowerment and success, is funded with dark money. The same is true in the fight against fair pay laws.

In the first half of 2012 states enacted 95 new provisions related to reproductive health, including 39 restrictions on abortion access alone. In 2000, before the impact of Citizens United would be fully realized “only” 89 new anti-abortion laws were passed. In the entire year. As soon as the Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act religious organizations including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops created a SuperPAC to fund the legal challenges. It’s resulted in over twenty federal lawsuits with countless more on the way.

It’s simply undeniable that as corporate and secret money flowed unrestricted so to did the attacks on women’s reproductive health.

This issue affects women on the front end as well. Thanks to the persistency of the wage gap, women cannot spend as freely in elections. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, even though women slightly outnumber men in terms of overall population, they accounted for only 29.6 percent of people making federal-level political donations in the last election cycle. That figure gets even smaller when you look at overall dollar amount donated. Women contribute less money less often to political campaigns, and this is true even as the number of contributions by women is on the rise. What’s happening then?

We’re being drowned out.

We can’t expect the attacks on women’s rights to end until the money in our election system is shut off. As hard as we fight for reproductive rights we have to fight for election reform because the two are fundamentally linked. As citizens we have a right to know who influences our lawmakers, and this is especially true when those lawmakers put our lives on the line.