North Dakota ethics study broaches 'dark money' in elections
BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers heard examples Wednesday, Nov. 13, of so-called "dark money" at play in recent elections in the state.
The Legislature's interim Judiciary Committee heard testimony from two attorneys and a former Montana state representative about the effects of influential "dark money," or campaign contributions from organizations' undisclosed donors, criticized as secretive and pervasive.
The committee is undertaking a two-year study of provisions in a new constitutional amendment voters approved in 2018 mandating state government ethics, including the disclosure of "the ultimate and true source of funds spent" to influence state elections or actions, effective in 2021.
The 2019 Legislature passed Republican majority leaders' framework to implement provisions of the constitutional amendment. Greg Stites, an attorney representing the measure's sponsors, said many of those statutes "either hinder, restrict or impair what the constitutional provisions say."
"That's, I believe, not what you all want to do and what this study committee is all about, is to take a look at what was passed and is it really consistent with the constitution," Stites told the committee.
State ethics law narrows or restricts qualifications for disclosing the "ultimate and true source," according to Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy for the Campaign Legal Center.
She gave examples of "dark money" in North Dakota as recent as spending in the state's 2018 U.S. Senate race, in opposition to the 2018 ethics measure and in support of the 2016 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana.
"In both of those ballot measures, North Dakota voters were deprived of fundamental and essential information about the true sources of substantial amounts of money, often from out-of-state special interests, spent to influence their votes on matters directly affecting their lives," Chlopak said.
Some lawmakers questioned the reality of "dark money" in a state as small as North Dakota.
"Myself personally, I got elected for $15,000, so I must be getting kind of a really good deal," said Rep. Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks.
"The whole problem with dark money is that it's not disclosed," said Chlopak, who urged lawmakers to enact effective transparency legislation that avoids loopholes for disclosure.
Rob Cook, a Republican former state representative from Montana, spoke about Montana's grappling with "dark money" in elections, such as radio and mailed ads from groups with "lovely sounding names" such as "Mothers Against Child Predators."
"Dark money" isn't limited by large dollar amounts or small states, he added, posing how $60,000 could have affected Vetter's race.
"You don't have to spend millions to win seats," Cook said. "You can spend a $100,000 or $200,000 investment to change the flavor of the Legislature."
The Judiciary Committee meets again Thursday, Nov. 14, to resume testimony in its ethics study. The 2021 Legislature could take up a resulting bill.