Campaign Cash

Money. It’s been a force in politics practically since the birth of American democracy, and its influence doesn’t seem to be diminishing despite widespread agreement that it gives certain individuals and groups an outsized advantage come election day...
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How are political campaigns funded in Hawai‘i?

Money. It’s been a force in politics practically since the birth of American democracy, and its influence doesn’t seem to be diminishing despite widespread agreement that it gives certain individuals and groups an outsized advantage come election day. 

The wealthy, and citizens’ groups which pool donations to build a campaign war chest, wield more influence than the rest of us because of their ability to tip the scales in an election with a large infusion of cash. The influence that money can buy comes in the form of advertising, organizing, signage, and campaign events. 

Photo courtesy Adobe Stock

Attempts to limit campaign contributions and candidate spending have had some success. By statute, Hawai‘i voters can donate a maximum of $2,000 to any individual County Council or State House candidate each two-year election cycle, $4,000 to candidates for Mayor or State Senate each four-year cycle, and $6,000 each cycle to candidates for statewide office serving four-year terms, such as Governor, Lt. Governor and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). 

However, much of the money that bankrolls political campaigns comes from other, less transparent sources. Groups of voters with a common agenda can form a political action committee (PAC) to receive donations and support a specific candidate or candidates. Like the candidates themselves, with the exception of those running for statewide office with four-year terms, these groups cannot accept donations more than $1,000 from any individual or group each election. 

Another type of PAC isn’t associated with any particular candidate, but can spend its money on campaign events and advertising aimed at supporting certain politicians, as long as they act independently and don’t coordinate their activities with the candidate(s) they endorse, or their campaign(s).

Nationwide, these so-called Super PACS typically don’t have to reveal the source of their contributions and can accept an unlimited amount from each donor. Super PACs that spend their money on national campaigns—and in some states—don’t have to report where their money comes from, so it is sometimes referred to as “dark money.” 

The state of Hawai‘i treats Super PACs a little differently. Here, they are called Independent Expenditure Committees and, regardless of whether they coordinate their campaigns with the candidates they support, they must submit reports about their contributions and expenditures periodically throughout the campaign. So at least we know where the money is coming from. 

If you’re interested in following the money, anyone can view the financial disclosure reports submitted by Hawai‘i’s Super PACs on the Campaign Spending Commission website at ags.hawaii.gov/campaign/nc/independent-expenditure-committees.

In Hawaii, “dark money” usually refers to contributions made to 501c4 nonprofit social welfare organizations. The number refers to the section of the Internal Revenue Code that regulates them. Unlike 501c3 groups, which include churches and other tax-exempt charitable organizations, 501c4 organizations are allowed to get involved in politics. In fact, they can make unlimited anonymous contributions to Independent Expenditure Committees, which can then spend it campaigning for their candidate(s). A 501c4 group is supposed to be solely for the purpose of promoting social welfare, however lobbying and financially supporting candidates is permitted. 

Even while there is general agreement that government-funded elections where candidates aren’t required to rely on political contributions to compete would result in more fair and transparent elections, the U.S. Supreme Court has led us in the opposite direction. Their controversial ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission essentially created a new precedent establishing that corporations, like individuals, are entitled to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political candidates or causes. It equates contributions to “free speech.” The decision struck down all U.S. and state laws limiting corporate contributions, essentially granting them outsized influence. 

What can the average citizen do to have their voice heard among the clamor of lobbyists and contributors seeking to influence our elections? Make a contribution yourself. Choose a candidate or two that you have confidence in and volunteer for their campaigns. Sign-waving is free. And support the folks you think will make Maui County a better place on social media or with a sign in your front yard. Lastly, when your elected officials fail to represent your interests, call them out and let your frustrations and concerns be known. Show up. Testify. Write letters. Be heard. 

Retail politics are alive and well in Maui County, and in some ways we still retain a small-town, locally-driven government that is responsive to the community. We can all be grateful for that.

Photo courtesy Pixabay

The following is a list of the 25 noncandidate committees making solely independent expenditures that are currently registered with the Commission including links to their organizational reports and filed disclosure reports:

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