Whether dark money is a problem in North Dakota depends on who you ask.
“Absolutely there’s problems with transparency in elections here,” Ellen Chaffee, a proponent of the Ethics Commission, said.
“I don’t think dark money is a real problem in North Dakota,” Bismarck Republican Sen. Dick Dever said.
Dark money refers to political spending by nonprofit groups that don’t have to disclose where it got its funds, only how it’s spending those funds. It’s typically done through independent expenditures, or money used to influence a campaign.
“Some entities are required to report their donations and other entities are not,” Hanson said.
Political Action Committees, or PACs, for example, have to report their donations. Independent expenditures don’t. In the 2020 campaign year, $379,000 have been contributed through 11 different independent expenditures. The exact source of that money is unclear.
Some have straightforward names, like the National Association of Realtors Fund, which spent about $17,000 this election cycle. But others are more vague, like the Brighter Future Alliance, which contributed the most of any organization so far, at $253,000.
Rep. Karla Rose Hanson says that’s concerning.
“The public really should know who is spending money to influence their elections,” Hanson said.
What those organizations are doing is legal, but opponents say it’s inconsistent with the state constitution.
“Section 1 of Article 14 is one of the strongest anti-dark money laws in the country,” Chaffee said.
That section reads “The people… have the right to know in a timely manner the source…of resources used to influence any statewide election…”
It’s followed by a section that says legislators shall pass laws to enforce that section within three years of its passage, which was in 2018. It hasn’t happened, according to Hanson.
“The bill that I introduced this summer would’ve applied the same transparency requirements to independent expenditures that already exist for political candidates, committees, and political parties,” Hanson said.
That bill failed, in part because of privacy concerns from lawmakers like Dever.
“I get concerned when I hear on a national level of people being harassed for who they support,” Dever said.
Dever said that kind of reporting could be a slippery slope to the creation of databases that could be sold.
“Some organizations sell that information. The state of North Dakota should not in our reporting process create databases that can be sold,” Dever said.
He said he doesn’t deny that corruption exists in North Dakota, but doesn’t think Hanson’s measure would solve the problem.
To see more contributions and expenditures spent this year, check out the Secretary of State’s Campaign Finance database here.