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Dark money's influence in Arizona Secretary of State race

Ballot, election, vote, voting
Posted at 2:53 PM, Jul 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-29 23:20:58-04

PHOENIX — Political donors from across the country are trying to influence the results of Arizona’s Secretary of State race, according to two national campaign finance experts.

The Secretary of State oversees voter registration rolls, campaign finance and the election system. Six people are vying to fill the seat. The current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is running for governor.

“As recently as four years ago, a lot of people would not have been able to name the Secretary of State,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government program.

Then the 2020 election happened.

Donald Trump and his supporters made false claims that the presidential election had been stolen. They pressured Secretaries of State in an effort to get the vote count and certification to swing their way.

“People have sort of awoken to the importance of this state-level position, so now, national interests are on both sides want to have control in this area,” said Brendan Glavin, a senior data analyst at OpenSecrets.org.

In Arizona’s Secretary of State race, outside groups have outspent two of the candidates in an effort to sway voters’ decisions.

The first campaign involves Republican State Rep. Mark Finchem who tried to help Trump in the “Stop the Steal” movement. Finchem was with the crowds outside the Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021.

Finchem spent $1.1. million in direct campaign contributions in this election cycle, according to Arizona’s See The Money campaign finance tracker on July 26. Meanwhile, MoveOn.org’s political action committee has poured $1.7 million into independent expenditures, funding emails campaigning against Finchem.

On the Democratic side, State House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding spent just over $400,000 in campaign contributions, but several independent expenditure groups have funneled a combined $1.9 million into ads supporting Bolding. That’s according to the See The Money campaign finance tracker on July 26.

The independent expenditure ads can be effective with voters.

“An outside group has this veneer of independence,” Vandewalker said. “Even though frequently, outside spending is actually paid for by close allies of the candidate or the party or other interests that might typically be expected to weigh in, in the way that they do.”

Most of the independent expenditures that favor Bolding came from two nonprofit groups closely linked to the legislator or his wife. Our Voice, Our Vote AZ and Activate 48 say they are nonprofit groups dedicated to civic engagement and voter registration. Since they don't have to identify individual donors or limit contributions, they are considered dark money groups.

A dark money group can reduce transparency in politics.

“It can come in at the last minute, maybe put out some questionable material,” Glavin said. “The candidate may not even have a chance to respond to this if it happens right before the election, and then we don't know where the money came from.”

Both experts said outside groups are making similar independent expenditures in key Secretary of State races across the country.