Reporting campaign finance can be difficult because much of the action is obscured. Journalists have to rely on fairly unreliable government disclosure websites, many of which only report certain types of spending on an almost arbitrary schedule. To find the true number of television ads purchased in an election, one must literally visit every network station and request copies of records, a feat physically impossible for reporters with limited resources. Moreover, a vast portion of election spending, including big business-related efforts to encourage executives, employees, and others to vote for a particular candidate, is simply left off disclosures altogether.
The election this week in Wisconsin is a case in point. Media outlets were quick to report that Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate, was outspent about 7 or 8 to 1 in campaign spending by Gov. Scott Walker and his cohorts. But this total was calculated by adding up disclosed campaign accounts in addition to television and radio spending estimated by independent analysts, like Kantar Media. This is not the whole picture.
Elections can be bought using a number of tactics that elude
traditional campaign disclosure. For instance, as we reported, Americans
for Prosperity, a group financed largely by Koch Industries executives
Charles and David Koch, bused activists
from Illinois into Wisconsin to help canvass and encourage Wisconsin
voters to support Walker. Americans for Prosperity provided food and
voter lists, and came prepared with a large staff of political
operatives to guide these volunteers into battleground areas of the
state, with one large effort conducted the weekend before the recall
vote. As the Sunlight Foundation notes,
the following video from Americans for Prosperity shows the group
directing volunteering, overseeing phone calls to voters, and even
distributing door-hangers to remind voters to support Walker:
These efforts undoubtedly boosted Walker, and were clearly designed as campaign expenditures; but because Americans for Prosperity is organized as an education charity, not a single dime of these bus tours are catalogued anywhere as election spending. In 2010, Americans for Prosperity simultaneously ran several nation-wide bus tours and get out the vote operations -- including offers of free food and gift cards to volunteers -- to help elect pro-big business Republicans to the House of Representatives. Two years after the midterm election, we discovered at least $3.9 million in unreported electioneering, mostly on the bus tours. Again, not a dime of these electioneering efforts were registered or disclosed.
Other big business fronts, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents big banks and multinational corporations, have large voter turnout efforts that are deployed every election season to get out the vote. According to Cleta Mitchell, a leading Republican attorney advising various corporate fronts, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision gives legal entities like the Chamber and Americans for Prosperity wide leeway to communicate on any issue and engage politically however they see fit -- even in terms of pressuring employees, vendors, and customers about elections. However, there is virtually no disclosure when it comes to voter mobilization (and still very few rules on more traditional electioneering, like television, radio and Internet ads).