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A simple handshake could restore accountability to Alaska's Senate race

  • Author: Jessie Peterson
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published September 24, 2014

In recent years, a tremendous surge in campaign spending from untraceable donors, front groups and shell corporations has eroded our democracy and created an election season that feels more like an auction season. Fortunately for Alaska voters, Senate candidates Mark Begich, Democrat, and Dan Sullivan, Republican, can end the flood of secret money in their race and create an example for the nation with a simple, common-sense agreement.

Without passing a single piece of legislation, Begich and Sullivan can chart a path forward for more transparent elections by mutually agreeing to reject "dark money" -- that is, the support of outside groups spending millions of dollars to influence the election while refusing to disclose their sources of funding. The urgent need to limit dark money spending has never been more obvious. Nationally, outside spending by anonymous donors has increased from $5 million in 2006 to $300 million in 2012, thanks in large part to a steady erosion of campaign finance regulations and the notorious Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened the door to a monsoon of outside spending.

More and more, voters are recognizing the problem. Few issues cut across the spectrum of partisan politics as cleanly as voters' desire for stemming the tide of secret spending. A recent poll of more than 500 likely voters in Alaska found more than 80 percent of voters think secret spending should be limited. The same poll found that more than 70 percent of voters would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports limiting spending on political ads by secret, untraceable donors.

Though Nov. 4 is less than six weeks away, it's not too late for the candidates to make a real difference in this election. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the final month before Election Day has made up about half of the spending by outside groups in nearly every election over the past decade. In Alaska, outside groups have already spent more than $15 million on this Senate race alone. The bottom line: there's a whole lot of money that's yet to come.

Given the large sums of dark money already being spent in the Alaska Senate race, a mutual pledge between the candidates represents an opportunity to implement a meaningful agreement that will ultimately benefit the state's voters. The candidates have a chance to show voters they are ready for a campaign about their ideas, not about secret money from groups who are ultimately not accountable to the voters.

The broad outlines of a pledge between candidates would include requiring a candidate benefiting from a television or radio advertisement paid for with undisclosed funds to donate money from their own campaign to a charity of their opponent's choice. The proposed agreement would dissuade outside groups from using undisclosed funds since the benefit of any "dark money" advertisement would be immediately offset with a campaign's own dollars.

In order to help enforce the agreement, the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, or AKPIRG, a nonpartisan organization that since 1974 has been advocating for the public interest of Alaskans, and CounterPAC, an independent and nonpartisan organization that initially proposed this "no dark money" pledge, would monitor spending activity and call attention to any pledge violations.

Both AKPIRG and CounterPAC would be pleased to help facilitate and enforce a pledge by acting as neutral brokers to bring both sides to the negotiating table to work in good faith to forge an agreement. An agreement would show that both Begich and Sullivan are committed to campaign transparency and offer candidates across the nation a roadmap for bringing public accountability to our money-dominated elections.

The "no dark money" pledge is a simple idea -- but the ramifications for our democracy could be enormous. As the candidates spend the next weeks traveling long distances across Alaska to campaign for votes, they should also work toward one simple handshake together.

Jessie Peterson is the director of AKPIRG, a non-partisan, non-profit, citizen-oriented statewide organization researching, educating and advocating on behalf of the public interest.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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