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Column: It's time to get dark money out of politics

Heidi Heitkamp

When a toy company runs an ad on TV, we know the company's goal: to make the latest toy look irresistible, and to encourage us to buy it. (Or to encourage our kids to pester us until we do.)

When it's clear who's behind an ad, the public can weigh what's true and what's a stretch. We can take the sales pitch with a grain of salt, and make an informed decision about whether or not to buy it.

The same is true with political ads. To understand them, we need to know who's behind them. But more and more frequently, North Dakotans have no idea who is spending millions on radio, TV, and direct mail campaigns that try to sway our opinions. How can we judge the message when we don't know who's behind it?

Just last week I signed onto a bill with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, to get our politics into the sunlight and limit the influence of big money donors.

Our SUN Act would make sure the public knows who is funneling money into tax-exempt groups that currently aren't required to disclose their donors as they try to influence elections through TV and radio ads, direct mail, and more. Any donor who spends more than $5,000 on tax-exempt groups that engage in electioneering would have to make that donation public. The bill would have no impact on non-profits that don't engage in election activities.

The amount of dark, undisclosed money in politics has skyrocketed since 2006. By 2014, only 29 percent of election spending was transparent, according to a study of spending in six states released last year by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

It's always been my goal to make sure voters control our elections, not special interests or secret out-of-state donors. When I served as North Dakota's attorney general in the 1990s, I began fighting for more transparency and accountability in the democratic process. Last year, I continued that work by introducing legislation to reform our campaigns, give more power to voters, and reform lobbying to limit the influence of special interests. It was clear to me when I was attorney general that there's too much money in politics. Today, that money often comes from out-of-state billionaires. Those billionaires should have to disclose when they're funneling money into tax-exempt groups—especially when those groups run ads on our TV and radio stations, send mail to our homes, and launch advocacy groups to try to shape the public conversation. We have no idea who these big-money donors are, or what their agenda is. And there's a reason billionaires would hide their identities and channel money through tax-exempt groups so they can run political ads without revealing know who's writing the checks. Those special interests are afraid that if North Dakotans knew who was behind these ads, we wouldn't buy what they're selling. All that dark, undisclosed money is corrosive to our democracy. It pollutes our airwaves with non-stop politics. It makes our democratic process nastier and more divisive. And it makes the voices of out-of-state billionaires that much louder than the voices of regular North Dakotans. That has to change, and the SUN Act can help.

Heitkamp, D-N.D., serves in the U.S. Senate.

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