‘Dark money’ in campaigns legal unless rules change

Ben Bakker addresses the crowd at the monthly Manatee Tiger Bay Club meeting Thursday at Pier 22.
Ben Bakker addresses the crowd at the monthly Manatee Tiger Bay Club meeting Thursday at Pier 22. mdelaney@bradenton.com

While “dark money” may unduly influence a voter’s choice in all type of elections, panelists at a Manatee Tiger Bay Club meeting Thursday said rules are rules and politicians looking to win an election are going to play the game in order to get elected.

“It’s hard to criticize the politician when they’re playing by the rules,” Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett said during the monthly club meeting inside the ballroom at Pier 22.

Keith Fitzgerald, a professor at New College of Florida, agreed. Politicians are going to play the game and use the rules to their advantage as long as they exist.

Cathy Antunes, public interest activist, said the practice of dark money in elections is “legalized corruption,” and the public deserves to know who is funding the campaigns of elected officials, especially on the local level.

Money from PACs and LLCs can be hard to trace, Antunes said, and voters deserve to know who’s trying to influence their vote.

“Local elections matter,” she said. “This is a system that works for the donor. It doesn’t work for the voter.”

Antunes advocates for change to start on the local level with voters demanding more clarity of contributions in school board and county elections, while Bennett said a constitutional amendment brought by the people would be necessary to drive change. Politicians are unlikely to change the way campaign financing works, because right now it works in their favor, Bennett said.

“I wish I had an easy answer for you,” Bennett said.

Fitzgerald agreed. He added in 2016, it would be easier to bring more transparency into the process, including having political contributions updated on websites in real time, instead of filing periods.

He also advocates funneling money through the different political parties and working to hold the parties more accountable through regulations instead of the individual politicians. If people give to the parties, instead of the candidates, like they do in other countries, it may help change the system.

“Let them do the work,” he said.

Meghin Delaney: 941-745-7081, @MeghinDelaney