New Analysis: Outside Spending in 2016’s Top Senate Races is Higher, More Concentrated, and More Secret


“Shadow party” groups, outside spenders with close ties to the Senate leadership of each party, including Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, have already spent $47 million in 2016’s closest U.S. Senate races, according to a new analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Unlike the money that goes through official party committees, these shadow parties can conceal the source of their funding from the public, and are not subject to contribution limits, threatening to make parties more dependent on megadonors, corporations, and unions.

The report measured outside spending so far in the eight Senate races listed as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Its other findings include:

  • Spending is concentrated among a few interests: Three major spending coalitions — the Democratic Party’s shadow groups, the Koch Brothers’ network, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have accounted for 58 percent of all reported outside spending across the eight races.
  • Single-candidate groups overshadowed: The continued growth of shadow parties and the Koch network may be slowing the rise of the single-candidate outside groups that played a major role in 2014’s races. Their share of non-party outside spending is down from 21 percent to 12 percent.
  • ‘Trump effect’ not in evidence: There is little evidence that Trump’s nomination is diverting large amounts of money away from the presidential race and into Senate races, despite reports to the contrary.
  • Secret money boom continues: Secret spending, by groups that conceal their donors from the public, remains on the rise. It has already reached at least $55.4 million. Republicans hold a major advantage in reported dark-money spending so far.

“Outside spending in Senate elections is on track to shatter last cycle’s records,” said analysis author and Brennan Center counsel Ian Vandewalker. “More importantly, the increasing concentration of spending among a few players, the ease of circumventing contribution limits and concealing donors from the public, and the danger of collaboration between candidates and ‘outside’ groups, indicate that voters are right to see effective campaign finance reform as one of America’s biggest — and most necessary — challenges today.”

Read the full analysis, Election Spending 2016: Eight Toss-Up Senate Races.

Read more about the Brennan Center’s work on Money in Politics.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292-8381 or

Bethlehem Event Highlights Redistricting Reform

art for fair districts

Editor’s Note: The following blog post was originally published by our friends at Fair Districts PA. More information on the coalition (PFFE is a member), and how to help them stop unfair redistricting practices in the Keystone State, check out the group’s website.

An engaged crowd gathered on a hot Friday evening for a discussion on “Gerrymandering and How to Create Fair Districts in Pennsylvania” sponsored by the The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lehigh Valley and the League of Women Voters of Lehigh County.

The evening began with a short video about gerrymandering: “Why Rigging Elections is Totally Legal.

This was followed by a brief presentation by Carol Kuniholm, election reform specialist for the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and co-chair of Fair Districts PA, highlighting impacts of gerrymandered districts on voters, parties, communities, candidates and policy.

Senator Lisa Boscola and Representative David Parker discussed their own reasons for tackling redistricting reform. Boscola described the way redistricting has been used to punish legislators who vote their conscience in opposition to party leadership, while Parker talked about the way the 2002 redistricting split Monroe County among six state senators, with none actually living in the state.

They described their bills, SB 484 and HB 1835, and explained the mechanisms for selection of commissioners.

Commom Cause Senior Adviser Barry Kauffman called attention to attendance by two heroes of redistricting reform efforts in PA: Amanda Holt, key complainant in a successful 2012 redistricting appeal, and Re. Steve Samuelson, who was a driving force behind a similar reform effort in 2008.

While it’s now too late to see constitutional amendments pass in the 2015-2016 legislative session, all agreed that with enough public pressure, early passage of an amendment in the next session would make it possible to have an impartial process in place in time for the 2020 redistricting. Those in attendance were urged to stay informed and help spread the word about the importance of redistricting.

Hey Pennsylvanians: Are You Registered to Vote?


Hey Pennsylvania residents: Are you registered to vote? The League of Women Voters wants you to know that if not, it’s a simple and easy process.

The nonprofit organization recently launched a web page that allows people to register on the spot.

Do yourself a favor: Check it out, and if you haven’t done so—register today.

Remember that sharing is caring—share the link with your family and friends to ensure they take their opportunity to cast a ballot.

It’s all right here.

Federal Court Denies Maryland’s Motion to Dismiss Challenge to Partisan Gerrymander


This week in Shapiro v. McManus, a three-judge federal court denied the State of Maryland’s motion to dismiss a challenge to the legislature’s 2011 congressional redistricting. The challenge was brought by a group of Maryland residents claiming that the redistricting plan burdens their First Amendment right of political association. Lead plaintiff Steve Shapiro is a Common Cause Maryland member. Common Cause has filed briefs in the case as Maryland’s previous attempt to defend its partisan gerrymander made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled the case should be heard by the three-judge court.

Statement of Karen Hobert Flynn, Common Cause President:

“Today’s decision is another victory for voters and their right to choose their legislators rather than allowing legislators to choose their voters. Partisan gerrymanders strip citizens of the ability to elect the candidates of their choice and that is why Common Cause is fighting this gerrymander by Democrats in Maryland and why we have brought suit challenging a blatant partisan gerrymander perpetrated by Republicans in North Carolina.”

Statement of Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland

“Partisan gerrymanders are undemocratic by nature and the Supreme Court has recognized that. We’re incredibly pleased that the Courts are finally becoming receptive to the reality that these types of power-grabs by legislatures have victims and burden the free speech of American citizens just because their views are in the political minority.”

Super PACs dominate 2016; “Dark Money” a Growing Presence Since 2000


A new historical analysis of political advertising data by the Wesleyan Media Project, in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics, reveals several important findings about the involvement of outside groups in elections over the past decade and a half.  In particular, the report provides an in-depth assessment of outside group advertising (2.4 million airings) over time, examining trends in the activity of different types of groups (as defined by their donor disclosure) and the involvement of different groups at various points in an election cycle.

Highlights of the special report

  • There has been a vast increase in the volume of advertising sponsored by outside groups between 2000 and 2016.
  • The share of ads sponsored by outside groups between 2000 and 2016 has increased dramatically.
  • Whereas 527 organizations dominated advertising in 2004, super PACs now sponsor the most outside group advertising.
  • Dark money groups (also known as non-disclosing groups) have been a consistent presence since 2000 and are much more active before the FEC’s 60-day reporting window. The overall volume of ad buys from dark money groups has increased in recent cycles, and even though the share of ads from dark money groups has declined relative to super PACs, their raw ad totals remain high.
  • The vast majority of groups are active in a single election cycle.


For the last nine election cycles, the Wesleyan Media Project and its predecessor, the Wisconsin Advertising Project, have coded political ads airing on local broadcast television stations across the country. As part of that work, both projects have tracked airings by candidates and formal party organizations in addition to outside groups who not only advocate on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for federal and state office but also advertise about issues and public policy debates, often highlighting—in a positive or negative light—the policy positions of those candidates. Outside groups come in many forms, which vary in the extent to which they report donors to federal or state campaign finance regulators, with some (specifically “dark money” organizations) not publicly reporting their donors.

This report focuses on the efforts of outside groups in federal elections since 2000, documenting both the growing presence of these groups in federal elections over the last nine election cycles and the many different types of groups involved in federal elections and how they are involved. We pay special attention to dark money groups and their activity relative to the FEC reporting windows.


Group-Sponsored Ads Skyrocket since 2000

The motivation for this report is one important fact: Outside group involvement in television advertising in federal elections has grown substantially over the past decade and a half for which the Wesleyan Media Project has tracking data. In our previous work, we have established some of the following:

  • Outside groups sponsored more than half of all Republican primary ads in the 2012 and 2016 presidential race but were largely inactive in such primary election contests in previous years.
  • Outside groups aired more ads in the 2012 presidential general election than in any previous presidential election.
  • Outside groups sponsored nearly 30 percent of all ads aired in congressional primary and general elections in 2012 and 2014.
  • Groups are much more heavily involved in competitive contests than non-competitive ones.

For our analyses, we examined all ads aired in federal elections between 2000 and 2016.  The Wisconsin Advertising Project tracked ads in the top 75 media markets in the election of 2000; that number expanded to the top 100 markets in 2002 and 2004.  The Wesleyan Media Project tracked ads in the top 100 markets in 2006 and expanded to include all 210 media markets from 2008 through 2016 (2008 data were analyzed by Wisconsin). We also only include ads aired on local broadcast stations and national cable networks, excluding local cable buys, radio ads, and print and digital ads.

First, the volume of ads sponsored by groups has increased considerably over time.  Tracking data show just under 80,000 airings by outside groups in federal elections in 2000—about 10 percent of all ads—compared to nearly 880,000 in the 2012 election cycle, which accounted for more than 1 in every 4 ads aired that election cycle.

Second, and as shown in Figure 1, group advertising as a proportion of all ads on the air has also grown steadily since 2006. Group-sponsored advertising accounted for 14 percent of all airings in 2004 (groups sponsored 1 in every 5 presidential ads that year but only 4 percent of congressional ads) but rose to nearly a third (32.5 percent) of all airings in 2016 cycle-to-date.

Over 2 Million Political Ads Aired This Cycle, up 9% over 2012

university’s website.An estimated $1.56 billion has been spent so far in the 2015-2016 election cycle on political advertising (Table 1), according to a new analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. That money has purchased just over 2 million ad airings on local broadcast television since January 1, 2015, which is an increase of 9 percent over the 1.87 million total airings at this point in 2012.

About a third of that total ($517 million) was spent on nearly 610,000 ad airings in the presidential race, while spending on campaigns for U.S. Senate came to $247 million for over 280,000 airings. Spending on races for governor and U.S. House lag behind, clocking in at a little over $80 million apiece. Just over $34 million has been spent on ballot measures so far.

Table 1: Ad Spending and Airings

Est. Cost 
(in Millions)
Figures are from January 1, 2015 to August 18, 2016. Numbers include broadcast television
(national network and national cable are included in presidential totals).
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
President 517 609,893
Governor 86 233,566
US House 83 143,423
US Senate 247 280,416
Federal and Governor Total 934 1,267,298
Ballot Measures 34 58,904
Mayor 0.05 153
Attorney General 3 6,836
State Senate 27 58,994
Lt. Governor 2 4,510
Judicial 21 50,026
State Rep. 12 23,310
Other 45 109,055
Grand Total 1,560 2,032,307


Despite an overall increase in ad airings in 2016, advertising activity in federal races is down from 2012 levels (1.27 million in 2016 compared to 1.39 million in 2012). As shown in Table 2, presidential airings in 2016 are down by 14 percent compared to 2012 cycle-to-date as are U.S. House airings. 2016 senatorial airings are down 32 percent compared to 2014 races, but up by nearly 12 percent over 2010 in which the same seats were being contested six years ago. Gubernatorial airings, in stark contrast, are considerably higher in 2016 than they were in 2012 (233,500 versus 167,000 four year earlier), an increase of 40 percent.

More information and charts are available at the university’s website.

News of Note: Federal Court Rules Ferguson School District Violated Voting Rights Act

cour case image

A federal court recently ruled that the at-large electoral process used by Missouri’s Ferguson-Florissant School District dilutes the voting power of the African-American community, in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri NAACP and several African-American parents and residents.

“The court agreed that the current at-large system dilutes African-Americans’ voting power and undermines their voice in the political process. This ruling recognizes that voting in Ferguson-Florissant usually results in the election of candidates preferred by white voters only, and helps push back against decades of systemic racism,” said Julie Ebenstein, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

The Ferguson-Florissant area has a long history of racial discrimination. The school district itself was created by a 1975 federal desegregation order intended to remedy the effects of discrimination against African-American students.

Yet, over 40 years later, no more than two of seven school board members have been African-American prior to the ACLU filing this lawsuit — this in a district where African-Americans comprise nearly 80 percent of the student body. The area also suffers from severe patterns of racial inequality across a wide spectrum of other socioeconomic indicators, such as income and employment.

In its ruling, the court found that “there is a history of officially sanctioned discrimination in the region and the district, and that history is not just a distant memory.”

The lawsuit, Missouri NAACP v. Ferguson-Florissant School District, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis.

“The ruling is an important step forward in addressing the long history of governmental policies in Missouri that have worked to disfavor communities of color in our elections, and our schools, housing, and employment,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri.

New Report: Internet Voting Threatens Ballot Secrecy

Casting a secret ballot in the upcoming election might not be so secret or secure depending on where – and how – you vote, according to a new report, The Secret Ballot at Risk: Recommendations for Protecting Democracy. The report was coauthored by three leading organizations focused on voting technology, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Verified Voting and Common Cause.

Caitriona Fitzgerald, State Policy Coordinator for EPIC and a co-author of the report, said, “The secret ballot is a core value in all 50 states. Yet states are asking some voters to waive this right. That threatens voting freedom and election integrity. This report will help safeguard voter privacy.”

This year 32 states will allow voting by email, fax and internet portals – mostly for overseas and military voters. In most states, voters using Internet voting must waive their right to a secret ballot.

Giving up the right to a secret ballot threatens the freedom to vote as one chooses, argue the report authors. The report cites several examples of employers making political participation a condition of employment — such as an Ohio coal mining company requiring its workers to attend a Presidential candidate’s rally – and not paying them for their time.

“On Election Day, we all are equal. The Secret Ballot ensures voters that employers’ political opinions stop at the ballot box,” said Susannah Goodman, director of Common Cause’s national Voting Integrity Campaign. “The Secret Ballot was established for a reason. The Secret Ballot ensures that we can all vote our conscience without undue intimidation and coercion.”

Marc Rotenberg, EPIC President, agreed, “The secret ballot is the cornerstone of modern democracy. The states must do more to protect the privacy of voters.”

Key findings from the report include:

  • Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia collect votes online, with e-mail, electronic fax, or an online portal
  • Twenty-eight of these states and the District of Columbia ask voters to waive their right to a secret ballot.
  • Four of the states that collect votes online do not give voters any warning regarding ballot secrecy and Internet voting.

“The findings are concerning; the good news is, voters can protect the privacy and security of their vote. These solutions do not require any legislative change – voters can take advantage of already existing rules to protect their right to a secret ballot this election cycle,” said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting Foundation, a nonprofit working to safeguard elections in the digital age by promoting the use of reliable and verifiable voting systems and methods.

Among the authors’ recommendations to voters and election officials:

  • Get your ballot early;
  • Get your ballot faster – if you are a military/overseas voter, you can receive your blank ballot electronically;
  • Mark your printed ballot and mail it back.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program recommends that postal mail return of a voted ballot, coupled with the electronic transmission of a blank ballot is the “most responsible” method of absentee voting for military and overseas voters.

The Department of Homeland Security warned recently that internet voting “introduces great risk into the election system by threatening voters’ expectations of confidentiality, accountability and security of their votes […].”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has also warned about the risks of online voting. In 2011, NIST concluded that “…ballot secrecy remains a challenging issue in remote electronic voting systems”; until these and other challenges are overcome, secure Internet voting is not yet feasible.

The complete report is available at

ACLU Lauds California Move to Clarify Who Can Vote with a Criminal Conviction in the State


The California State Senate this week voted to send AB 2466 (Weber, D-San Diego) to the Governor, rolling back a discriminatory voting restriction in California that is a carry over from the Jim Crow era, when states made it harder for black citizens and other minorities to register and vote.

“Courts in the last two weeks are taking action to reverse overtly discriminatory voting laws enacted in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas and Kansas,” said AB 2466’s author, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber. “But while national attention is focused on a few states, many fail to realize that in California voters of color have suffered new restrictions on their right to vote in recent years. I wrote AB 2466 because I want to send a message to the nation that California will not stand for discrimination in voting.”

In the wake of actions by state officials over the past 10 years to limit the right to vote for people sentenced for felony convictions, AB 2466 codifies recent court decisions affirming the right to vote for people serving a sentence for a low level felony and settles, once and for all, who can and cannot vote with a criminal conviction in California.

“Many Californians believe that any contact with the criminal justice system means they have lost their right to vote,” said Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “We should inform those with conviction histories as well as the general community the status of the current law, and work to keep as many connected to their communities as possible. Even if a person has a conviction history their family, friends, and community still need him or her to be actively engaged in democracy. We should encourage those willing to re-enter society to fully do so.”

In California alone, three out of every four men in prison are African American, Latino, or Asian American. That means that felony disenfranchisement laws continue to have a much greater impact on voters of color. This disparate impact serves the same basic goal that voter suppression laws created in the post-Civil War Jim Crow era did: to erase the views and electoral wishes of freed slaves and people of color for generations.

“The ongoing confusion about who can vote with a criminal conviction means untold thousands of Californians who are eligible to vote are actually excluded from our democracy instead,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D- San Diego), who also co-authored the legislation. “AB 2466 guarantees more civic participation, especially in communities of color, and it gives local election officials and the Secretary of State new, important tools to uphold the integrity of the voter file and our elections.”

“The legislature’s vote demonstrates that our elected officials want to be on the right side of history and end this insidious form of voter discrimination,” said Lori Shellenberger, director of the ACLU of California’s Voting Rights Project. “It’s also a vote for public safety. When we allow people to exercise their civic duty to participate in our elections we reduce their chances of re-offending and make our communities safer.”

Federal Court Blocks Texas Law Restricting Language Assistance to Voters


The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund  applauded a federal court order blocking the Texas law that limits access to interpreters for limited English proficient voters.

The district court ruled that the Texas law, which requires interpreters to be registered voters, violates the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which protects the right of voters to select persons of their choice to assist them at the polls.

Jerry Vattamala, AALDEF Democracy Program Director, said: “This is a great victory for Asian American voters and all LEP voters across the state of Texas. The federal court recognized that Asian Americans still face barriers at the polls and that Texas had restricted their right to language assistance. We look forward to seeing improvements in the state’s compliance with federal law when we conduct our Asian American exit poll in the November presidential election.”

In his 21-page opinion in OCA-Greater Houston v. State of Texas, federal district judge Robert Pitman granted AALDEF’s motion for summary judgment and enjoined the “Interpretation Provisions” of Texas Election Code 61.033, which “flatly contradict Section 208” of the VRA by “arbitrarily requiring the interpreter to be registered to vote in the county where assistance is being sought.”

Margaret Fung, AALDEF Executive Director said, “State laws must not be used to restrict voter access for communities of color, including Asian American citizens with limited English proficiency. The enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is still necessary to ensure that Asian Americans can participate fully in the political process.”

Asian American voters benefit from section 208 because most jurisdictions in Texas are not required to provide Asian-language interpreters under the Voting Rights Act. Section 208 allows LEP voters to be assisted by their friends or family members inside the voting booth, regardless of the citizenship or voter registration status of the assistor.

AALDEF filed the lawsuit on Aug. 6, 2015, on behalf of OCA-Greater Houston, a nonprofit organization, and the late Mallika Das, an Indian American voter denied language assistance from her son in the 2014 midterm elections because he was not a registered voter in that county.

On behalf of OCA-Greater Houston, Deborah Chen said: “As an organization working to civically and politically empower Asian Americans here in Texas, we are pleased to see that this significant barrier to voting for LEP Asian Americans has been removed. Empowered by this decision, we will continue our work to ensure that more Asian Americans in Texas are civically engaged.”

The decision is available here.