Kudos to Jeff Brindle, executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), for calling out the danger to NJ’s electoral system from shadowy, special interest Super PACs (political action committees). Brindle has frequently decried the influence of dark money and Super PACs in NJ elections, but Sunlight is happy to see that Brindle makes the explicit connection between Super PAC spending and the special interest domination of NJ politics. This theme was highlighted in Sunlight’s recent Star-Ledger op-ed.
Brindle’s InsiderNJ op-ed, entitled “‘We the People’ Deserve to know ‘Who Pays’ for Elections,” is a tour de force that goes right to the US Constitution, questioning whether Super PAC dark money undermines the concept of government by the people. Under the Constitution, the people are sovereign but when outside special interests fail to disclose the sources and uses of their massive spending, they undercut government by the people. As Brindle puts it: “The growing influence of [Super PACs] is turning government by the people into government by special interests …” We could not agree more.
As Brindle makes clear, Super PACs have become the primary vehicle for political spending by special interests because they are largely unregulated and can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of issues and candidates. Heavily regulated and transparent political parties simply cannot compete.
The 2021 elections provide a prime example. Super PACs spent $57.5 million, or almost twice the $30.3 million in spent by political parties. But Super PAC spending is not transparent. Many of them are not required to disclose their donors, and all of home only have to disclose spending that expressly supports a candidate, while spending supporting an issue need not be disclosed at all even if it implicitly supports a candidate.
But as Sunlight highlighted in its Star-Ledger op-ed, even when a Super PAC is required to disclose its explicit support of a candidate, that disclosure can be very poor. For example, from 2013 to 2020, NJ’s biggest Super PAC, the NJEA’s Garden State Forward, did not disclose where it spent its money in over 95% of its ELEC filings. We implore Brindle to amplify this issue and seek the authority to make Super PACs follow the letter of the election laws. The power of the people is indeed at stake.
Overall, Sunlight applauds Brindle for bringing attention to this problem and placing it in its proper constitutional context. We echo his conclusion that “the danger presented by special interest [Super PACs] … to New Jersey’s electoral system is real” as well as his call for lawmakers to require greater disclosure by Super PACs.
But getting the conflicted Governor Murphy to do anything about it is an entirely different proposition. He has greatly benefited from spending by shadowy, special interest Super PACs – especially by the NJEA – so why would he change a thing?