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.
A Trump administration rule permitting many politically active nonprofits to keep their donors a secret has been upended by a federal judge, who says the regulation was written with illegal secrecy.
The IRS decided one year ago to allow so-called 501(c)4 organizations, known as social-welfare groups, to generally keep their contributor lists from the IRS – further accelerating the flow of anonymously donated "dark money" into campaigns. Prominent examples of these organizations are the National Rifle Association, the AARP, Democratic Socialists of America and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity. They are permitted to retain their tax-exempt status so long as they spend less than half their money trying to influence elections.
But a federal trial judge in Montana, Brian Morris, ruled this week that the IRS moved too quickly in its rulemaking and did not give the public a formalize means to weigh in.
Democracy reform once again simmered on the back burner as other issues, dominated by health care and immigration, boiled over on the first night of the second round of Democratic debates.
The moderators didn't ask any direct questions about campaign finance reform, expanding access to the ballot box or amending governing systems. But seven of the 10 presidential candidates on stage Tuesday night still managed to underscore their interest in making big changes to the political system.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., had a stand-out moment when he promoted several fundamental overhauls to the current rules of campaigns and governing.
"Of course we need to get money out of politics," he declared. "But when I propose the actual structural democratic reforms that might make a difference — end the Electoral College, amend the Constitution if necessary to clear up Citizens United, have D.C. actually be a state and depoliticize the Supreme Court with structural reform — people look at me funny, as if this country were incapable of structural reform," he said.
The others who talked about fixing democracy's malfunctions did so mostly by lamenting big money's influence on elections.
Here's a by-the-numbers look at democracy reform's place in the debate.
This story has been revised after additional reporting.
Steadily if still softly, anxiety about the health of American democracy has become at least a secondary theme in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Proposals for restoring the public's faith in elections, and a sense of fairness in our governing system, have now earned a place on most of the candidates' platforms. And more and more of them have been including calls for democracy reform in their stump speeches.
To be sure, the topic has not come close to the top tier of issues driving the opening stages of the campaign. In the first round of candidate debates last month, for example, the contenders collectively spent less time talking about democracy's ills than eight other issues: health care, President Trump's record, immigration, social policy, economic inequality, gun control, foreign policy and the environment.