In recent years, independent expenditure campaign committees have become a growing influence over our electoral process – not just here in New Jersey, but nationally as well. They funnel millions and millions of dollars in order to sway elections without ever disclosing the identities of their donors. This has led to a system that is dominated by wealthy special interests who remain anonymous.
These clandestine entities live in the shadows of our political system, with benign sounding names designed to conceal donors’ identities and their true intentions. Their funding is known as “dark money” for a reason –to keep the public in the dark and unenlightened.
Consider this: in the 2017 statewide elections for Governor and the Legislature, independent groups spent over $47 million, compared to a combined $27 million by state and county political parties. In the 2018 mid-term congressional elections, independent groups spent six times the amount expended by political parties – a record breaking $49 million. Combined, that amounts to nearly $100 million of anonymous dollars spent to buy our votes just in the past two election cycles.
The public has a right to know who funds the political ads they see on television, encounter on social media, and hear on the radio. Without knowing what interests are behind the information, they are unable to make informed decisions. Additionally, there is a growing cynicism that exists between the public and its elected representatives on all levels of government. A recent Eagleton/FDU Poll found that New Jersey residents view many of the politicians in our state unfavorably. Another key component of that disillusionment can be traced to our current campaign finance system.
Too often, average citizens believe their voices are shut out. They believe that our politics and policies are driven by the well-heeled and well-connected, simply because they have the ability to give exceptionally large, secret donations.
To combat that feeling of mistrust, we need real campaign finance reform. That is why I’ve been working closely with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission since 2016 to craft legislation that would provide greater transparency through heightened disclosure, which I believe is necessary to empower voters to hold all of us elected representatives accountable. In the wake of the United State Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, we saw how drastically the voices of average citizens were drowned out in today’s political structure, which impedes the democratic process.
Transparency has always been one of the fundamental tenets of campaign finance regulation. As candidates for office, we are legally required to disclose who contributes to our campaigns, and so should those who operate in the world of “dark money” seeking to influence our elections and governmental processes. Unfortunately, politics –and not the quest for good public policy – has clouded this debate in our state.
This year, my proposal, Senate Bill 1500, which would shed a light on the activities of independent expenditure committees, advanced through both houses of the Legislature. Its rapid rise, after being stagnant for several years, was fueled by the debate earlier this year over campaign contributions to certain independent expenditure committees controlled by groups supportive of Governor Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney. However, since then, the Governor conditionally vetoed the legislation and the issue has now become a pawn in personal and political gamesmanship. This is bad for public policy and for the institutions upon which our democracy relies.
The "politics of personal destruction," a phrase once made popular by former President Bill Clinton, has never been, nor will it ever be, my objective or motivation in crafting public policy. It was not my motivation when I introduced the “dark money” legislation three years ago, nor is it today. But, we cannot allow personal infighting to stall the progress we have made on this issue.
This initiative will not end the disproportionate power that some have over our political process. That will only be achieved by amplifying the voices of everyday citizens through greater participation in our electoral process. However, it could be an important step towards shining the light of transparency on the influence that dark money contributions have over our government, once and for all.
Senator Troy Singleton represents the 7th Legislative District.