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Whitehouse with Tiffany Muller of End Citizens United, left, and Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters at the National Press Club Wednesday.

More prominent Democrats emphasizing dark money's effects on climate change

A main marketing line for democracy reform advocates is that fixing the political system is a predicate to tackling all the other pressing problems of the day. And in Congress, a prominent acolyte of this idea is Sheldon Whitehouse, the Senate's most persistent advocate for combating climate change, who has long argued his cause will never gain traction while unlimited "dark money" permeates the campaign finance system.

The Rhode Island Democrat was making his case again this week, putting together a meeting of advocates for reducing money's role in politics and advocates of reducing carbon's role in the economy.

Wednesday's gathering in downtown Washington, with members of End Citizens United and the League of Conservation Voters, came as a growing number of Democratic presidential candidates are highlighting a link between their climate change proposals and their proposals for regulating campaign finance and lobbying.

The collective argument is that so long as the oil, gas and coal industries remain such mainstays of the unregulated and secretive campaign money universe that legislation to slow global warming doesn't stand a chance.


Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling unleased the new world of "dark money," energy companies have spent more than $668 million on campaigns, three-quarters of it to promote Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"We are in a battle for our country's soul against malefactors of great wealth who have been allowed to hide the wicked workings of that wealth behind masks," Whitehouse said. "The fossil fuel industry's dark money has polluted our politics as badly as its carbon emissions have polluted our atmosphere and oceans."

Before the landmark Citizens United case – which said the First Amendment meant political spending by corporations and labor unions could not be limited – there was bipartisan movement on climate change policy, Whitehouse said, but since then that movement has lacked Republican support due to the influence of dark money from the fossil fuel industry.

Whitehouse has introduced legislation that would require organizations spending money in federal elections — including super PACs and certain nonprofit groups — to promptly disclose donors of more than $10,000 in an election cycle. He's proposed a similar bill in each of the three previous Congresses but it's gone nowhere. This year, however, similar language is in the comprehensive bill, known as HR 1, the House Democrats pushed to party-line passage this spring.

With Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocking not only that legislation but also all bills to address climate change, the traditional path forward for change on either front is not viable.

McConnell says he believe climate change is happening and humans are contributing, but he does not agree with any ideas the Democrats have for countermanding the situation. His only move was to arrange a vote in the Senate designed to show minimal support for the Green New Deal, a non-binding resolution calling on the government to create a massive public works program designed to shift the economy's reliance away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources.

But there are other scenarios that could play out during the legislative impasse, Whitehouse said. The public can pressure the oil companies to be more open about their political spending. The "good guys" in the energy economy can hold the rest to a higher standard. And an effort to "blow up the status quo and turn dark money against" the energy behemoths by launching subpoena-backed congressional investigations that could bring their political behavior to light.

We’re all about the issues that have broken American democracy — and efforts to make governments work again for you, your family and your friends.
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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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