It’s starting again — those requests for contributions from political candidates. And it’s 16 months before the election.

 

So, what does it cost to get our politicians elected and sent to St. Paul? The answers are contained in an overview of expenditures and sources of funding for the 2018 election recently released by the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. The board is responsible for collecting the data relating to money in politics in Minnesota. Its latest release, including graphs, makes the raw numbers understandable.

The total expenditures listed in the over 6,900 reports filed in our state for 2018 was a whopping $61,124,657. And this was for a year when the state Senate was not on the ballot. That total includes both campaign expenditures made by individual candidate committees and independent expenditures.

The surprise revealed in the report is that 55% of the expenditures made to influence your vote in 2018 were independent expenditures, including negative advertisements that are (theoretically at least) outside the control of any candidate.

Independent expenditures are made by political party units, political committees, political funds and the super PACS that were created in response to the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Examples include the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses and the Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund Minnesota.

The board report is careful to point out that its data does not include expenditures made in campaigns for communications such as mailings, flyers, billboards or radio or TV ads that do not use specific words that expressly advocate for or against a candidate, such as “vote for.” This is due to a loophole in Minnesota law that has been fixed by 19 other states. Because of this we do not know exactly how much money is being spent or the identity of all of the contributors.

The dominance of independent expenditures is a very significant change. Independent expenditures increased from $436,000 in 1994 to more than $33 million in 2018. Independent expenditures doubled in Minnesota from 2014 to 2018. So, the model of individuals or groups giving contributions directly to candidates under limits imposed in state law ($1,000 for the House or Senate in 2019-20) is much less relevant and effective today.

PACs do not make independent expenditures in every legislative contest in Minnesota, but only in districts where close contests are expected. In 2018 this was primarily suburban districts in the metropolitan area. For example, in House District 44A, the district with the highest total expenditures in 2018, campaign expenditures by the candidate committees totaled $142,990 while independent expenditures totaled $562,521.

The dominance of independent expenditures is a concern for our democracy because there are no longer any limits on contributions to the political committees and party units that make independent expenditures (thanks to Citizens United), although there are individual and aggregate limits for receipt of independent expenditure funds by candidates. So, a special-interest group can make a major contribution to a PAC that ends up in a legislative campaign and this may very well be unrelated to the concerns of the residents of the district.

The report sets out the major contributors to party units and PACs in 2018. It points out that 79 individual contributors contributed $50,000 or more in 2017-2018 for a total of $18,301,960. These 79 individuals gave in total substantially more than the total for the next 7,000 largest individual contributions to PACs and party units.

In other words, big money in elections is alive and well in Minnesota. Given the need for candidates to secure funding to win, one wonders how a candidate can afford to overlook the requests of a major contributor. Legislators should represent us rather than their contributors or their political party.

In order to address the power of money over the will of citizens in our elections we need to pay attention to the contribution and expenditure data filed with the board so that we know who supports a candidate before we vote. And that data needs to be available before the election. We certainly need to correct the loophole that permits secret contributions. And our Legislature needs to send a resolution to Congress asking it to adopt an amendment reversing the Citizens United decision that unleashed unlimited contributions into our elections.

Finally, if we provide meaningful public financing for candidates they will not need to rely upon large private donations.

 

George Beck is chair of Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections and a former chair of the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board.