Secret Money’s Big Bang

The explosion of political spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors

Olivia Lutwak

What grows 3,700 percent in just eight years? A new report by the Brennan Center analyzed a sample of six states — Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, and Massachusetts — to learn more about how secret political spending operates in the United States. After the Citizens United decision in 2010, special interest groups increasingly poured money into elections without disclosing the sources of their funds. Since 2006, this so-called “dark money” has increased on average by a factor of 38.

To anchor this number in reality, we pose the question: has anything else in our country grown by 38 times — that’s a 3,700 percent growth — between 2006 and 2014? Here are some numbers that put the growth of secret money in context:


As it turns out, median household income actually decreased between 2006 and 2014 by 5.1 percent.  So while everyday Americans saw their income shrink over the years, undisclosed corporate money was funneled into American electionss at unprecedented rates.

Even though median income didn’t increase, the federal minimum wage did. The U.S. minimum wage increased from $5.15 in 2006 to $7.25 in 2014. For an individual working full time, the yearly increase in wages was enough to buy over half a year of groceries for a family of four. But that 40.8 percent jump in the minimum wage still came nowhere close to the 38-fold increase in secret political spending.

Good news: the GDP is growing, but again, not nearly as much as secret political expenditures. In eight years, the U.S. GDP grew 25.3 percent, which is practically nothing compared to the 3,700 percent growth seen by secret political cash during the same period.

If there’s one industry that has definitely grown in the past decade, it’s technology, with Apple at the forefront. Apple’s revenue has skyrocketed every year, and it’s the first real contender against secret political spending growth. In 2006, Apple’s revenue was $19.3 billion. By 2014, it was $182.8 billion. That’s an increase of 947 percent — or a nine-fold increase in revenue. While that’s impressive, it’s still only a quarter of the percent increase experienced by secret political spending between 2006 and 2014.

While college hasn’t fundamentally changed since the days of Animal House, tuition may be the main exception. The average private college tuition in 2014, including room and board, was $42,445, compared to $30,367 in 2006. That marks a 39.8 percent increase. For in-state public schools, the increase was even greater. At 47.9 percent, the growth in public school tuition was larger than median income, minimum wage, and GDP, but still nowhere close to the increase in secret political expenditures.

Three-thousand seven-hundred percent growth is almost unfathomable. Dark money prevents voters from knowing who is really influencing their candidates. If we stopped funneling dark money into our elections and instead empowered small donors, we could have a government that is truly of, by, and for the people.

The good news is that the president has the power to require federal contractors to disclose their political spending – cracking down on secret money — with the stroke of a pen.

Take a stand against the flood of secret money in our elections: Tell President Obama to sign an executive order now.


Olivia Lutwak