More than $1 billion spent on the 2020 election — the most expensive presidential contest in history — came from unknown sources.
Because of the secretive nature of this so-called dark money, it's difficult to capture the entire scope of such undisclosed spending. So this enormous sum, first reported by OpenSecrets, is actually a conservative estimate. The organization, which tracks money in politics, published its report Wednesday after studying Federal Election Commission reports and advertising data.
Ironically, Democrats, who largely advocate for bolstering transparency around political spending, were the ones who benefited most from these undisclosed funds. OpenSecrets found that liberal dark money groups spent $514 million last year, compared to $200 million spent by conservative groups.
In recent years, liberal dark money has been on the rise despite fervent efforts to curtail this spending by Democrats. The 2018 midterms was the first time since the Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision that more dark money was spent in favor of Democrats than Republicans. This trend continued in the 2020 election, marking the first presidential contest in which Democratic dark money surpassed that of Republicans.
The 2010 ruling lifted restrictions on political spending, considering it protected as a form of free speech. Since then, secretive spending has only become more entrenched in American elections.
"Overturn Citizens United" has been the mantra of campaign finance reform advocates for the last decade. Many Democratic candidates, including nearly every one that ran for president last year, included it in their campaign platform. Reeling in dark money is also a key provision of the sweeping democracy reform bill, HR 1, that has been passed twice by House Democrats.
While President Biden may have slightly improved the odds of the For the People Act passing in the Senate, it's still an uphill climb. This week a pair of progressive advocacy groups, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and Let America Vote Action Fund, announced a $30 million investment in advertising, lobbying and grassroots organizing to push HR 1 forward.
Still, there's no denying Democrats' ability to use the current system to their advantage in last year's election. Biden's presidential victory was supported by $174 million from anonymous donors — more than six times the amount ($25 million) that went toward Donald Trump's unsuccessful re-election bid.
Liberal groups accounted for 10 of the 15 biggest dark money spenders in the 2020 election, but the No. 1 spot went to conservative nonprofit One Nation, which spent more than $125 million on political contributions and ads. One Nation has ties to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
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Social media has become a punching bag for conservatives, who claim Facebook and Twitter have been silencing them. But in reality, the political right thrives on such platforms, a new report found.
The 28-page study, released Monday by New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, debunks the claim of anti-conservative bias on social media and shows how well the GOP has used those platforms for messaging and fundraising.
While the false pretense that social media sites are anti-conservative is not new, Republican ire was reignited last month after Twitter and other platforms banned President Donald Trump just days before the end of his term. That crackdown has spurred debate over the role social media companies will play in regulating future content.
"Trump's being exiled from the most popular social media channels should not be misconstrued as confirmation of the claim he and others on the right have long made about platform bias," the report says. "The Trump bans, while unprecedented, were based on reasonable determinations that he violated platform rules against sabotaging election results and inciting violence."
Before Trump was kicked off Facebook, user engagement on his page dwarfed that of Joe Biden. Paul Barrett, the report's primary author and deputy director of the Stern Center, found that from Sept. 3, 2020, to Election Day, there were 307 million likes, comments and shares between the two pages — and Trump elicited 87 percent of them.
His dominance of social media goes back to his first campaign: Facebook and Twitter were actually key to his 2016 victory because targeted political ads on those platforms allowed him to rake in a huge chunk of campaign cash.
And it's not just Trump's activity that's been popular on social media. Right-leaning pages almost always dominate the list of profiles with the highest engagement on Facebook, the report found. Fox News, Breitbart and The Daily Caller consistently held the top three spots from Jan. 1, 2020, to Election Day. These three conservative news outlets collectively generated 839 million interactions — beating the total engagement from seven of the top mainstream media pages (CNN, ABC News, BBC News, NBC News, NPR, Now This and The New York Times).
"The claim of anti-conservative animus is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it," Barrett writes in the report.
The NYU report isn't the only evidence that claims of anti-conservative bias on social media are unfounded.
Kevin Roose, a columnist for The New York Times, tweets daily list of the top-performing links on Facebook — data routinely dominated by the right.
The top-performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages in the last 24 hours are from: 1. Fox News 2. Fox News 3. For… https://t.co/GDBEg1OC9w— Facebook's Top 10 (@Facebook's Top 10)1612197400.0
Moving forward, the report recommends that social media companies provide greater disclosure for content moderation actions, offer users a choice among algorithms, hire more human moderators to oversee high-profile accounts and release more data for researchers.
For the Biden administration, the report recommends pursuing a constructive reform agenda for social media, creating a new agency charged with digital content oversight and working with Congress to update the so-called Section 230, which protects online platforms from potential liability.
"What is needed is a robust reform agenda that addresses the very real problems of social media content regulation as it currently exists," Barrett said. "Only by moving forward from these false claims can we begin to pursue that agenda in earnest."
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It's often hard to see, but much more is at stake Tuesday than the presidency and control of Congress. Voters get to shape public policy by approving or rejecting more than 100 statewide ballot measures and dozens more local proposals — and this exercise in direct democracy includes plenty of ideas for bettering American democracy itself.
More than a score of measures would change the rules for elections from Alaska to Puerto Rico and from Maine to California. And they amount to a something-for-everyone smorgasbord of proposals at the heart of the fix-the-system agenda. There's ranked-choice voting and Electoral College neutering, open primaries and term limits, campaign finance crackdowns and partisan gerrymandering reforms, and expanded voting rights for both felons and teenagers.
There are also progressive efforts to end a Jim Crow era election rule in Mississippi and conservative efforts to combat the prospects that non-citizens might vote in three states.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, and a series of court rulings against allowing signature-gathering drives to move online, several dozen other ballot initiative campaigns came up short — including bids to improve elections in battleground Ohio and convene independent redistricting panels in at least four more states in time to draw maps for the new decade.
There's not much polling on these measures, but in the main their proponents feel pretty good about their prospects. If most get approved, mirroring a surge of success for small-d democracy ballot proposals in 2018, that would almost surely set the stage for another wave of reform efforts in two years.
But for now, and in alphabetical order by location, these are the 10 most consequential good-governance ballot measures facing the electorate next week:
Alaska: election process overhaul
Our most enormous state will consider the year's most sweeping single democracy reform initiative, a revamp of both election procedures and campaign finance rules.
If approved, there would be single primaries open to all candidates for Congress and every state government position, and the top four finishers would advance. November's races would become ranked-choice elections. Voters could tap one favorite or list them in order of preference and, when no one secures a majority of top choice votes, instant runoffs would redistribute the second- and third-choice ballots until someone cracked 50 percent support. (Contests for president and local offices would not change.)
The initiative also would require more disclosure of bigger donations to independent political groups and the sources of gifts to campaigns. And it would require disclaimers on campaign advertising by organizations funded by mostly out-of-state money.
Proponents say approval would shed light on the secretive flow of money into the state's political and governing system, curb the power of the two big parties and further promote centrist and independent candidates, who already have a better-than-average record of success in the state. Opponents say the current system works just fine.
California: voting rights restoration
The most populous state, and also the one that loves ballot questions most, has a dozen measures this year. One of them would restore the franchise to nearly 50,000 people on parole for felony convictions.
Improving voting rights for ex-convicts has become a top cause of civil rights groups, who say democracy is enhanced when political power is given back to people who have paid their debt to society. The campaign has resulted in more than 2 million felons, a group disproportionately Black and Latino, getting more political rights in the past decade. (Republicans, who argue that rewarding violent or repeat offenders is an injustice to their victims, have most notably succeeded in restricting newly restored rights for felons in Florida.)
California would join 17 states that already allow felons to register upon release from prison. It was one of the first states to restore any of their political rights, allowing felons to vote since 1975 after completing probation and parole. That is too strict by today's standards, ballot measure advocates say.
Colorado: popular or electoral votes
The only slightly purple state that has promised its electoral votes to the popular vote winner will decide whether to reverse that decision.
A "No" vote means quitting the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which Colorado joined by state law only a year ago. Like 14 other states, and D.C., that means it has pledged its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who gets the most votes nationwide — but only once states forming an Electoral College majority sign on. That magic number is 270. The other places, all reliably Democratic, have a combined 187 votes, so the deal is a long way from kicking in. Colorado has nine but will get a 10th for the coming decade because of population growth.
Proponents say the pact is an entirely constitutional way — and doesn't require clearing the high hurdles of amending the Constitution — to assure the popular vote always produces the winner. (Two of the most recent presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, got elected despite finishing second in the popular vote.) Advocates also argue the switch will boost turnout and civic engagement, because every vote across the country will matter.
The ballot measure was pushed by Republicans, who expect the switch would turn all voting power in the state's presidential contests over to the blue cities. GOP leaders nationwide argue something similar, and concede they benefit from the disproportionate sway that less-populated red states have in the Electoral College.
Florida: open primaries
It will take a 60 percent supermajority to approve a measure transforming elections in the nation's most populous purple state by opening most primaries to all voters, regardless of party. If approved, all registered voters would use the same ballot to pick candidates for governor, other statewide offices and seats in the Legislature, starting in 2024. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. (Nominees for Congress would still be chosen the same as now.)
Republican and Democratic leaders oppose the switch, which would dilute their dominance over elections by taking away the guarantee one candidate from each would make the November ballot. Others argue open primaries would make political gains tougher for Black and Latino candidates. Supporters maintain the overriding benefits would be giving voice at a crucial stage in the political process to 3.8 million unaffiliated voters, or 30 percent of the state's electorate, and rewarding candidates who appeal to the center instead of to the red or blue bases.
Florida is now among a minority of states where primaries are completely closed to voters not registered with the major parties. Most allow some sort of crossover or independent participation.
Massachusetts: ranked-choice voting
Ranked elections have been embraced by New York and a score of other cities, and five more might decide to join them next week. But the year's big test is Massachusetts, which will decide whether to join nearby Maine as the second state using the system almost exclusively.
Adoption would mean a switch starting in 2022 for all primaries and general elections for Congress, governor and other statewide executive positions, the Legislature and some countywide posts. Voters would be allowed to support more than one candidate, ranking them in order of preference. If no one wins outright with a majority of first-choice votes, the person with the fewest No. 1 votes would be dropped and those ballots would get redistributed based on their No. 2 choices — the process repeating in an instant, computerized runoff until one candidate has a majority of support.
Proponents see so-called RCV as a means to spur a more consensus-driven politics, reduce negative campaigning, weaken the major party duopoly and promote the election prospects of women and people of color. Opponents label the system as unnecessarily confusing and prone to manipulation (if not downright cheating) by the savviest and best financed candidates.
The cities with RCV ballot measures are Eureka and Albany, Calif.; Bloomington and Minnetonka, Minn.; and Boulder, Colo.
Missouri: redistricting reversal
Just two years ago, three in five Missourians approved a package of good-government reforms centered on making the redistricting process less partisan. Now the same voters are being asked to largely change their mind. If they do, it would be one of the most prominent repudiations in years of a citizen-driven effort to fix democracy's challenges.
The centerpiece of the proposal, put on the ballot by Republicans who control the state government, would abandon a key change the people endorsed in 2018: creation of the nonpartisan state demographer in charge of drawing the state's 197 legislative districts once a decade. Instead, the GOP plan would assign the mapmaking to a pair of bipartisan commissions appointed by the governor, starting next year once census figures are finalized.
Opponents say the result would be the same shoddy process as in the past — with rules guaranteeing secrecy, shielding the results from challenges by the public and promoting partisan gerrymandering. (Under the proposed system, boundaries could be set so the party winning 50 percent of the overall vote could end up with 65 percent of the General Assembly seats.) Critics also hate how the districts would be newly drawn based on the populations of adult citizens, not all people.
Supporters are pointing to an altogether different part of the package as why a "yes" vote is warranted — a proposed ban on lobbyist gifts and lower campaign contribution limits.
Oregon: campaign finance
Political spending in the state has been largely unregulated since its Supreme Court ruled in 1997 (fully 13 years before the U.S. Supreme Court's similar Citizens United decision) that the money was a form of free speech. Campaigns in the solidly blue state have become increasingly expensive — cresting a staggering $40 million for the not very close 2018 governor's race, for example.
This measure would give the Legislature and local governments power to limit political spending, possible now because the state's top court this spring significantly rolled back its ruling from 23 years ago.
Oregon is for now one of just five states that doesn't regulate non-federal campaign contributions. Democrats and good-government groups say the measure would allow reasonable limits that would tamp down potential corruption and reduce the political power of wealthy special interests. Opponents say the result would be a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.
Puerto Rico: statehood
The island's political future is on the ballot for the sixth time in five decades, but the outcome of the latest non-binding referendum could have dispositive consequences for American democracy. A vote to seek statehood would put unprecedented pressure on Congress and the president to get behind statehood for both Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. (Both major party platforms say Puerto Ricans should drive the statehood decision.)
Legislation would be required to end the commonwealth arrangement of the past 70 years: Puerto Ricans are American citizens who are exempt from federal income taxes and have significant local autonomy, but in return they get much less federal aid than the states and have no electoral votes or voting members of Congress.
With a population of 3.2 million, Puerto Rico as a state would be sandwiched between Iowa and Utah and like them would elect four House members and a pair of senators. At least at the outset, its complex political alignments would mean it looks relatively purple — unlike D.C, which could be counted on to elect nothing but Democrats. Both places could be counted on to send more non-white members to Congress.
Statehood supporters say it would bring Puerto Ricans full democratic rights and more federal support. The other choice on the ballot is independence, which has not drawn significant support in past plebiscites.
San Francisco: lower voting age
The nation's 16th biggest city could become the biggest jurisdiction in the country allowing 16-year-olds to vote. Approval of the local ballot question would allow thousands of teenagers to participate in elections for mayor, Board of Supervisors and other municipal posts.
Proponents of lowering the voting age from 18 say doing so would boost civic engagement by establishing the habit of election participation at an earlier age — and that it's appropriate to expand the franchise to include all people old enough to drive, pay taxes and shape public policy debates. But opponents say the change would give too much responsibility to youngsters neither mature nor informed enough to make decisions about political issues.
In 2013, Takoma Park, Md., a suburb of D.C., was the first to grant voting rights to teens. Since then, three other nearby cities in Maryland have followed suit. Eighteen states, plus D.C., allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the general election — and a statewide ballot measure would add California to that roster.
Virginia: new redistricting system
Because ballot petition drives were cut short by the pandemic in several states, and legislation has been caught in partisan gridlock in several more, just one additional state might depoliticize electoral mapmaking in time for the redistricting of the country for the rest of the decade, which will start once the census count is finalized.
Virginia's measure would tackle gerrymandering by taking line-drawing power away from the General Assembly and the governor, the system assured to stay in place in 35 states. The assignment would go instead to a bipartisan commission of eight lawmakers and eight citizens. Its legislative and congressional districts would have to secure a supermajority for adoption, or else the state Supreme Court would step in to draw the lines.
The proposal was a hard-fought compromise that survived unusual rules: It could get on the ballot only if endorsed by the General Assembly twice. And many Democrats in favor when they were in the minority in 2018 got skittish when they took total control of Richmond in 2019 — meaning they have power to execute a partisan gerrymander next year.
Proponents concede that, while a genuinely independent panel of citizens would be better, this proposal is the only achievable improvement given the timetable and the state's politics. Opponents, most prominently the state Democratic Party, want to hold out for the perfect rather than the good. They also complain there's no mandate for the commissioners to consider racial equity in their mapmaking, and they fear deadlock on the panel would mean maps drawn by what's for now a deeply conservative high court.
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The company announced Wednesday that it will start blocking issue advocacy, electoral and political advertisements as soon as the polls close on Election Day "to reduce opportunities for confusion and abuse." It also said that, until a victor is declared by news outlets, it will have banners atop its News Feed alerting viewers that no winner has been decided.
It's the latest move by the social media giant to be more assertive in repelling those, both foreign adversaries and American candidates, who might seek to spread disinformation online in hopes of manipulating the national election outcome and its aftermath.
Facebook signaled the ad ban will stay in effect until either President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged decisively as the winner. Unless their contest ends up in an Electoral College rout, that could be days or weeks after the last vote is cast — because of the time needed to tabulate an unprecedented number of absentee ballots thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Several of the biggest tossup states have rules against counting while the mail flows in, but in favor of counting envelopes delayed in the mail and arriving days late.
Trump says he expects to declare victory the night of Nov. 3 based on the mostly in-person vote totals — baselessly claiming that states changing color from red to blue after that will have been caused by election fraud. But polling shows most Democrats plan to vote by mail and most Republicans in person, so the later numbers are likely to favor Biden.
Facebook's latest move builds on several others this fall designed to protect its platform from electoral abuse. Last month it introduced measures to reduce election misinformation and interference, and also banned political ads the week leading up to Election Day. Google has also decided to block election ads after Nov. 3. The companies say these efforts will help protect the integrity of the election by combating the spread of misinformation.
In addition to ad cutoff, Facebook says it will be monitoring content from candidates and regular users to keep people up to date on the election and prevent the spread of false or misleading information.
When polls close, Facebook will send notifications to users and add labels to candidates' posts to share information about the counting process. If Biden or Trump, or the Democratic or Republican parties, declares victory before major media outlets says that's justified, Facebook will go a step further and alert users that counting is still in progress and a winner has not yet been determined.
Once a victor has been declared by major media outlets, Facebook will display the winner's name at the top of Facebook and Instagram and add a label to relevant posts.
Since Trump's call to his supporters "to go into the polls and watch very carefully," voting rights groups have raised concerns about voter intimidation. Facebook said it will remove content that encourages poll watching "when those calls use militarized language or suggest that the goal is to intimidate, exert control or display power over election officials or voters."
The company said it will continue to work with federal and state law enforcement and election officials to fight against voter intimidation and interference.
"These are important steps for Facebook to take to combat disinformation and the premature calling of election results before every vote is counted," said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She added that her organization "will continue to press Facebook and other social media platforms to take every possible step to protect a free and fair election and our imperiled democracy."
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