Nebraska voters may see greater transparency in state elections with a bill that would expel dark money from campaigns in the month leading up to an election.
Introduced by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, LB8 brings to light the negative aspects of dark money in state elections. Dark money is defined by Blood as political spending of unknown amounts by unknown contributors that is intended to influence voter decisions in elections.
The bill would require any person or group who contributes to any form of “electioneering communication” more than $250 or $1,000, respectively, to file with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission following the expenditure.
According to Blood, dark money groups are allowed to make claims about political candidates in their electioneering communications with few restrictions as long as they don’t use the words “vote for” or “vote against” anywhere in their message. Voters are then caught in the middle of a storm of misinformation in the days immediately preceding an election.
Electioneering communications are defined in the bill as any communications that are publicly distributed within 30 days immediately prior to an election. These communications must also refer to a clearly identified ballot question or candidate and are directed at the electorate of the office being sought by the candidate or at the voters who will be voting on the ballot question.
“We are talking about paid broadcasts or mass mailings of 1,000 pieces or more,” Blood said at the hearing. “We all know some of these ads identify the name of the candidate or ballot question but don’t mention the upcoming election. They get very creative in their language, but it is clear the purpose is that you should vote for or against the issue or the candidate.”
In a hearing before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee on March 4, Blood testified on behalf of her bill.
“This is an issue with both parties,” Blood said. “They’re both using it to their advantage and will continue to do so unless we close that loophole.”
“I can’t stress how important it is that campaigns, voters and those supporting ballot issues have the ability to be made aware of who is involved with this type of campaigning in the last 30 days of an election cycle,” she said. “They should have open access to anything that will affect their position in an election.”
Dark money is often brought into elections by special interest groups that have so far been able to avoid disclosure, according to Blood. These groups are known to target candidates and ballot questions with half-truths and even outright lies in attempts to mislead voters in the days immediately preceding an election, she said.
“If we require disclosure for electioneering communications, we tell Nebraskans that we value the opportunity to give those who are attacked or misrepresented the ability to respond publicly to the groups behind these misleading ads,” Blood said.
Dark money is often funneled through groups that establish themselves as 501(c) non-profit corporations, including 501(c)(3) educational nonprofits. LB8 is intended to close a loophole in the current state statute that says that these groups and individuals are not required to report on communications that are intended to be educational.
The changes proposed in LB8 would not alter what communications can be sent during the 30 days prior to an election or what message these communications can relay.
Additionally, any communications that are truly educational would be exempt. This includes candidate debate information for any news story or editorial and communication while the legislature is in session regarding any specific bill that is pending, among others.
At the hearing, former state senator Al Davis testified in support of LB8. Representing Nebraska’s 43rd district from 2013 to 2017, Davis reflected on his own experiences with dark money as a political candidate and the need for its expulsion from the state.
“We’re talking about letting money dictate how we’re going to have our elections,” Davis said.
“What Sen. Blood’s bill does, from my perspective, is it says at least we’re going to see to it that the names of these people who are making these contributions are reportable so that people can see who they are and where they come from,” he said.
Davis said that in the interest of discourse, it “absolutely made sense” that candidates also have the ability to see where the money being used against them is coming from.
Other proponents of LB8 who testified on its behalf were Linda Duckworth, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Nebraska and Frank Daley, executive director of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
Daley said the NADC supports LB8 and offered reassurances as to how much transparency the bill called for with election spending. He said the bill is not intended to monitor the content of political ads prior to elections, just how much money is spent to create them.
“Ultimately, this bill requires those making electioneering communications to disclose who they are, how much they spent, and which candidate or ballot question was the subject of their electioneering communication,” Daley said.
Daley also pointed out the conservative nature of LB8. He said there was contention surrounding the 30-day window proposed in the bill, but pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld federal laws that require the same level of disclosure within 30 days of a primary election and up to 60 days before a general election.
This assessment echoed Blood’s testimony that the level of disclosure called for in LB8 mirrors the 48-hour window that candidates have to report any donations that they receive within the 30 days prior to an election. Blood is calling for LB8 to put candidates and those who advocate for and against them to be put on an even playing field.
“Statistics show that nearly three-fourths of all Americans, regardless of their party, want dark money out of elections,” Blood said.
Blood said surveys show voters believe too much election money makes it hard to get bad people out of office.
According to Blood, the matter of dark money in Nebraska elections is a problem lawmakers have tried to resolve for years. She said LB8 is the fifth time that the issue has been addressed in the state legislature in some form or another.
“I grew up in Nebraska, and that’s not how politics used to be,” Blood said. “That’s how we’ve allowed it to be because we don’t take action on stuff like this. It never used to be us versus them. We’ve become so divided. We’ve got to get back to the Nebraska I knew growing up and one of the ways to do that is to get dark money out of campaigns.”
If the bill passes, Nebraska would join 22 other states that have already enacted legislation to root out dark money.
Blood said she already has four of the five votes she would need to advance LB8 out of the committee and onto the floor for debate. If voted out of committee, LB8 would enter the queue for debate, but may not be debated until the next legislative session begins in January 2022.