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Gov. Steve Bullock, now a Democratic candidate for president, pushed the Montana Legislature to enact a political ad transparency law in 2015.

Montana dark money disclosure law upheld by federal appeals court

Montanans advocating for political ad transparency are breathing a sigh of relief now that a federal appeals court has upheld their state's campaign disclosure mandate.

To counteract the unlimited political ad spending allowed by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, Gov. Steve Bullock pushed the requirement into law in 2015. He has ceaselessly promoted this accomplishment In his long-shot presidential campaign, citing it as evidence he's uniquely positioned in the giant Democratic field to extinguish dark money's influence in Washington.

The Montana law requires nonprofit organizations to register with the state as political committees and file disclosures if they spend $250 or more in the final two months of a campaign on advertising or mailers referring to a candidate, political party or ballot initiative. The educational and social welfare groups known as 501(c)(4)s, which usually evade disclosure requirements and are often behind dark money activity, are covered by the requirement.


On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the disclosure requirement, ruling the state has a legitimate interest in knowing the identities of groups aiming to influence voters.

The National Association of Gun Rights sued in 2016 to eliminate the disclosure requirement. The group argued unsuccessfully that the law was unconstitutional because the First Amendment only allows states to regulate "express advocacy" ads, which directly support or oppose a specific candidate.

"Montana's disclosure requirements for political speech that mentions a candidate or ballot initiative in the days leading up to an election reflect the unremarkable reality that such speech — express advocacy or not — is often intended to influence the electorate regarding the upcoming election," Judge Marsha Berzon wrote in the 9th Circuit opinion rejecting the gun group's argument.

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Swing states build 2020 hacking protections: Will they hold?

With the presidency on the ballot in less than a year, fears of another attempt by Russia or other foreign powers to interfere in the election seem to grow with each passing day.

But in the battlegrounds where the outcome will be decided — the 13 states almost certain to be most hotly contested by both parties — election security has been tightening and the opportunities for a successful hacking of American democracy are being greatly reduced, a review of the procedures and equipment on course to be used in each state in November 2020 makes clear.

"There's been a huge amount of progress since 2016," says Elaine Kamarck, an election security expert at the Brookings Institution. James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, says his assessment of the fight against election interference results in feeling "confident that a lot has been done to make it better."

In fact, many who work on the issue now cite the public's perception that our election systems are vulnerable as a problem at least as great as the actual threat.

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The 13 states where election security matters most

Along with the candidates and the issues, the 2020 presidential election is also going to be about the voting process itself.

Russian efforts to hack into the voting systems of 2016 have boosted election security to a critical concern this time, prompting states to spend tens of millions buying new equipment, hiring cybersecurity wizards and installing software that warns of intrusions — among numerous other steps. More purchases of hardware, software and expertise are coming in the months ahead.

Whether enough money gets spent, and wisely, won't be known for sure until Nov. 3, 2020 — when the system will be subject to the one test that really matters. And whether the country decides the presidential election result is trustworthy will likely come down to how reliably things work in the relatively small number of states both nominees are contesting.

[Swing states build 2020 hacking protections: Will they hold?]

With 11 months to go, The Fulcrum reviewed information from state elections officials, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Election Assistance Commission and news reports to get a sense of the election security landscape. Here's the state of play in the 13 states likeliest to be presidential battlegrounds.

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"Money in our political system has completely eroded the promise of a functioning and just democracy," argues Wambui Gatheru.

For the young, getting big money out of politics is the cause of our time

Gatheru is the outreach manager at American Promise, which advocates for amending the Constitution to permit laws that regulate the raising and spending of campaign funds. She graduated two years ago from the University of Connecticut.

When young Americans come together, we can make a big impact. That's what we've seen throughout history. Alexander Hamilton and Betsy Ross were in their early 20s during the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass was 23 years old when he took the stage at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Alice Paul through her 20s led the fight for the 19th Amendment and women's voting rights.

And that's what we're seeing today in youth-led climate movements around the globe and the movement to end mass shootings here in the United States. But one issue that doesn't get as much attention sits at the root of our modern problems: big money in politics.

Money in our political system has completely eroded the promise of a functioning and just democracy. Due to a series of Supreme Court cases, corporations have the same rights as humans, special interests control Capitol Hill and democracy only works for those who can afford it. This is the dystopia my generation has inherited.

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Howard Dean and Barack Obama pioneered the drive for small-dollar contributors. Now, such donations have become an important measuring stick and may be contributing to increased polarization.

Small-dollar gifts hardly a cure-all for money’s smear on politics, one professor argues

The explosion of small-donor political contributions is often celebrated and extolled as one of the few positive developments amid all the problems facing the democracy reform movement.

Not so fast, argues New York University law school professor Richard Pildes. In a new essay published in the Yale Law Journal Forum, he argues the proliferation of modest contributions to candidates may be contributing to more political polarization and, at least, requires more careful examination.

Pildes also says the proposals to promote more small-donor giving that are part of the House Democrats' comprehensive political process overhaul, known as HR 1, could have unintended negative consequences.

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