Following a long history of voter discrimination in the United States, corporate polluters have launched a major attack on American democracy by suppressing the right to vote and using targeted campaigns to further their own fossil-fueled agenda. David Armiak, a Research Director at the Center for Media and Democracy, spoke to us earlier this year on this issue. With a background studying social and protest movements, youth activism, power structures, and voting rights, Armiak is an expert at the intersection of democracy and action.
Our discussion with him illuminated the threat that corporate financial influence poses to the democratic system in the United States, and explores the role certain organizations have played (and continue to play) in undermining not just voting rights, but our trust in fair elections. Armiak hones in on the trouble with dark money — or political spending from undisclosed sources — and how conservative organizations, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), use these funds to spread misinformation and perpetrate other voter suppression tactics.
Dark Money Networks Thrive in Darkness
Dark money is a key financing mechanism for those seeking to gain from voter suppression tactics and a viciously effective, antidemocratic tool for controlling political outcomes in the U.S. Corporate polluters funnel dark money through conservative organizations that use these funds to suppress specific voters (communities of color, Indigenous nations, pro-environmental voters, youth, and more) while bankrolling the elections of industry-friendly government officials to further anti-environmental legislation. For individuals making large financial contributions, dark money networks provide a way to cover up not only their identities, but also just how influential their contributions are.
Armiak references Leonard Leo — an American lawyer, conservative legal activist, and co-chairman of the board at the Federalist Society (a highly powerful, nationwide organization of right-wing lawyers) — as an example of this phenomenon. Leo has been a leader in efforts to advance conservative judges at both the federal and state levels, and was instrumental in the selection and confirmation of multiple Supreme Court Justices under the Trump Administration. From 2014 to 2017, alone, Leo and his network collected more than $250 million in dark money donations for nonprofits to use in support of conservative policies and judges.
Armiak stresses the dangers stemming from a lack of legal disclosure requirements for the Federalist Society and other organizations like it. “Dark money, by nature, [is] dark...and the folks behind this are getting to be more and more sophisticated,” says Armiak in regards to tracing this type of funding and holding donors accountable. “This situation could get worse because right now, at least, that information is housed in state offices or with the IRS, but they are trying, on the right...to eliminate any kind of Schedule B disclosure.” Documentation of donations are typically disclosed on Schedule B forms, Armiak explains, so even people investigating would have to go through a difficult legal process to acquire that information if the existing minimal disclosures are also eliminated.
“Dark money, by nature, [is] dark...and the folks behind this are getting to be more and more sophisticated,”
Donations disclosed on Schedule B are already tough to trace as is, since nonprofits are not legally required to make the names and addresses of their individual donors available to the public. This means that many individual donors can secretly contribute to political action committees (PACs), organizations like the Federalist Society, and other front groups that are covered by the IRS’ Schedule B, ultimately hiding their personal identities. Ironically, the organizations behind these efforts to eliminate Schedule B disclosure claim their motive is the protection of free speech.
Further, these dark money groups — including donor-advised funds Donors Trust and the Bradley Impact Fund — intentionally implement tactics to make it difficult for people and researchers to track the money they receive, Armiak explains. Some of these strategies include unorganized cataloging, filing by paper, and filing at the last possible minute. Consequently, many donors either remain completely anonymous or simply cannot be traced due to lack of comprehensive, easy-to-follow data.
The Election Misinformation Machine
Armiak also explores the role these conservative organizations play in the spread of misinformation around elections. The creation and sharing of misinformation is a key suppression tactic used to sow doubt in the minds of voters and undermine the democratic process. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a conservative national policy organization and well-known front group for oil and gas interests, including ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Peabody Energy. Almost one hundred percent of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations and corporate foundations. ALEC has been instrumental in the drafting of model legislation to protect fossil fuel interests and suppressing the votes of those who are opposed to this agenda through Voter ID restrictions, gerrymandering, and other strategies.
The organization also played a pivotal role in challenging the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election, and has been irrefutably connected to the capitol insurrection that took place on January 6, 2021. Although it is known that ALEC supports Republicans, Armiak notes that the extent of its involvement in these incidents was nevertheless shocking — videos of ALEC’s CEO speaking to the Christian Right umbrella group Council for National Policy (CNP) reveal the organization was working on ways to challenge the election long before the insurrection occurred, even as far back as February 2020.
On January 5, the day before the insurrection, thirty ALEC state politicians signed onto a letter to Mike Pence, the then-Vice President, asking him not to certify the election results. Although Pence, a former ALEC member himself, did ultimately certify the results, he adamantly supported the voter fraud narrative as late as January 2. Many ALEC legislators even participated in the rally as active members, later refusing to turn over open records in fear of incriminating themselves.
Armiak identifies this as a key attack on the American democratic system: “As a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization, to have so many of your members involved in such a blatant, partisan, antidemocratic effort is really a slap in the face to those of us who believe in a strong civic society.” And ALEC’s efforts to challenge the validity of the election and to spread misinformation around its outcome proved successful — a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in mid-November 2020 found that about half of Republicans believed Trump had the election stolen from him due to voter fraud.
“As a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization, to have so many of your members involved in such a blatant, partisan, antidemocratic effort is really a slap in the face to those of us who believe in a strong civic society.”
“I think it’s really important that a lot of these people involved in organizing [the insurrection] were smart people, middle class people,” Armiak says. “But they were duped by a massive misinformation campaign that was astroturfed by people in power. [The people in power] were prepared. They were prepared to do this and they had the money and they had the people with deep ties to the Trump administration.” The influence of these conservative organizations and the corporate polluters who back them is astronomical. Their tactics and strategies are not isolated to this last election cycle. They seek to undermine the American democratic system itself, sowing mistrust and doubt in the integrity of the nation’s public institutions, paving the way for the challenging of future elections. And for the corporations behind the scenes — hidden beneath their dark money veils — it is all in the name of their fossil-fueled political agenda.