By Katherine Hamilton
Digital Content Writing Fellow, RepresentUs

2020’s presidential election was not only one of the most expensive campaign cycles in American history—it also involved a record amount of dark money.

Dark money is just as sinister as it sounds, and both parties benefit heavily from it.

Here’s exactly where it comes from, what it does, and—most importantly—how to get it out of our elections.

  1. What is dark money?
  2. How much dark money is there?
  3. Where does dark money come from?
  4. Who are the biggest spenders?
  5. Why is there so much dark money in our elections?
  6. How is dark money regulated right now?
  7. What's the solution to dark money?

What is dark money?

Dark money is any money spent to influence an election that comes from an undisclosed source.

Most dark money goes toward political ads meant to influence voters. We’re all familiar with the constant barrage of advertising during election season, but we don’t know exactly who is paying for it.

The secrecy behind this persuasive messaging makes it impossible for American voters to consider the credibility and motives of the wealthy donors funding it. Dark money enables billionaires and corporations to buy our elections without us even realizing.

How much dark money is there?

Dark money organizations spent a record $1 billion on the 2020 presidential election.

While contributions to the candidates themselves have to be disclosed to the public, dark money allows wealthy funders the opportunity to spend millions of dollars without ever stepping out of the shadows. Voters remain in the dark, and special interests retain their influence.

Graph showing that dark money donors spend six times more on Biden's presidential campaign than Trump's in 2020.

Anonymous corporate donors are contributing huge sums to boost candidates on both sides of the aisle. Although Republican campaigns have historically taken in more dark money, undisclosed funding skewed toward Democrats in 2020. Biden’s campaign attracted about $174 million in dark money, while Trump only attracted $25.2 million.

The problem isn’t confined to federal contests, either. In recent years, dark money has exploded in state, local, and judicial elections. America is awash in secretive spending.

Where does dark money come from?

Most dark money moves through politically active "nonprofits." As long as these organizations limit their explicitly political activities, they are not legally required to disclose their donors. If these groups use their money to influence elections and do not reveal where that money came from, they are considered a dark money group. (Want to see who funds us? We publish all our donors online.)

Because there is so much dark money, these organizations are now popping up for the sole purpose of collecting dark money and funneling it toward certain election campaigns.

Illustration showing how non-profits collect dark money in order to funnel it into Super Pacs

Often, these nonprofits give their dark money to super PACs. A super PAC is a type of political action committee, which is an organization that pools resources to support or oppose certain candidates. Certain types of PACs are permitted to accept and spend unlimited amounts of money, so we consider those PACs “super”—and a threat to our democracy.

Legally, super PACs must disclose their donors. However, if the contribution is funneled through one of these dark money nonprofits, the super PAC only has to disclose the name of that dark money nonprofit. This makes it impossible to trace the original source of the money.

Remember: The entire purpose of a super PAC is to allow for unlimited spending. These entities are designed for those who can afford to make massive contributions. The majority of donations to super PACs are over $1 million.

Who are the biggest spenders?

The five top-spending dark money organizations poured more than $47 million into the 2020 federal election. All but one focused on boosting liberal candidates.

The National Association of Realtors spent the most dark money in 2020, contributing more than $20 million on the federal election. This entity is a nonpartisan super PAC, so about $6 million went to supporting Democrats and $15 million supported Republican candidates. The NAR is terrifyingly effective—almost 87% of the candidates they paid to support won their elections.

Defending Democracy Together comes in second. It's a liberal organization that spent just under $16 million in 2020. As a self-proclaimed “anti-Donald Trump” political group, the group spent $3 million supporting Biden’s campaign and a whopping $13 million in efforts to oppose Trump.

The North Star PAC is another liberal super PAC that does not disclose its donors. It contributed about $7 million to oppose the incumbent Republican U.S. senator in Alaska.

The Duty and Country PAC, also a liberal super PAC, spent over $6 million against Republican candidates in the Kansas senate race.

Big Tent Project Fund, the fifth top dark money spender, spent nearly $5 million on the Democratic primary. In April 2020, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint to the FEC against the Big Tent Project for failing to register as a political committee and disclose its donors.

Why is there so much dark money in our elections?

The amount of dark money spent in presidential campaigns increased by almost $250 million between 2006 and 2012.

Graph showing that political spending by dark money groups totaled $130 between the 2000 and 2008 election cycles contrasting with the $963 milliion spent between the 2010 and 2018 election cycles.

The 2010 Supreme Court case FEC vs. Citizens United sparked this influx. The Court ruled that restricting corporations' political spending violated freedom of speech. The justices decided that these corporations should not be restricted from spending money on elections, as long as they aren’t directly coordinating with candidates. As a result of Citizens United and some other subsequent cases, corporations and labor unions can spend unlimited money on campaign ads.

Citizens United expanded the already-sizable political influence of wealthy donors and corporations. This allowed for the creation of super PACs. In the decade since Citizens United, super PACs have contributed almost $3 billion to political campaigns, half of which came from the same 25 ultra-wealthy individuals.

A graph showing that money spent in federal elections by outsider groups and super pacs has increased almost every year since the Citizens United court decision.

How is dark money regulated right now?

The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is the main body tasked with monitoring federal election spending and enforcing campaign laws. Recent reports have revealed systemic dysfunction and chronic under-funding, endangering the integrity of our elections.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic decline in fines issued by the FEC, even though election spending is on the rise. The likeliest causes are the ongoing loss of resources within the commission, and a structure that encourages gridlock. In the last three years, the FEC has lost 24 employees without replacing them. While the number of enforcement cases tripled in the last decade, the FEC’s budget has remained stagnant.

This is a huge deal: The FEC is our only way of ensuring fair campaign financing at the federal level. Under-funding and gridlock of the FEC renders election laws useless because no one is there to enforce them.

The solution to dark money? Pass laws to root our dark money.

Dark money takes power away from voters and puts it directly in the pockets of corporations and wealthy special interests. It’s a big reason why Americans across the political spectrum feel so pessimistic about the effectiveness of our government.

The good news: There’s a way to fight back and stop the flow of dark money into our elections. Passing real transparency measures that track dark money can fix the problem. We know it works—in recent years, voters in North Dakota and Alaska enacted these laws and rooted out dark money. 

Together we can fight to pass more state laws against dark money. Join the movement to fight corruption and get these bills passed!

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.