January 19, 2022

Sen. Whitehouse Delivers Floor Remarks on Dark Money and the Right to Vote

Madam President, this past weekend is our annual reminder as a country of the courage, suffering, sacrifice, passion, love, and energy that so many of our fellow Americans put into protecting our democracy.

When in a democracy, one group of citizens can deliberately, purposefully make it more difficult for another group of citizens to vote, they have put a dagger into that democracy. We cannot let that happen.

I am here today to focus, in particular, on one voting right that we have in this country, and that voting right is, when you are voting, to know what the hell is going on around you in that election, to know who is saying what, to know who the players are around you. If we are supposed to sit here, as Americans, and just act like indolent consumers, passive in this democracy, that is not the way it is supposed to work. Citizenship is an office, and that office has duties, and the duties include being informed of what is going on around you.

And what is stopping American citizens from knowing what is going on around them is the cascade, the torrent, the Nile River of dark money that has begun to flow into our democracy since Citizens United.

It wasn’t enough that the Republican Members of the Court let unlimited money flow. They then had to refuse to react when that unlimited dark money went underground, when it went dark, when it became anonymous.

They have had chance after chance to fix it and they refuse and we are left with this mess. It matters that citizens know who is talking in a democracy.

In my circuit, the First Circuit Court of Appeals—where JACK REED and I have the honor, occasionally, to recommend nominees to the President— there is a judge who I believe is the dean of the First Circuit Court of Appeals named Bruce Selya. He is a Rhode Islander. He was a Reagan appointee. He is a Republican. He is a very distinguished judge. And he has said: It is crucial that the electorate can understand who is speaking and, thus, to give proper weight to different speakers and messages when deciding how to vote.

That crucial right is denied to Americans wholesale because of an unprecedented dark money campaign of interference in our democracy.

You see it whenever it is election season. You are watching a television show and suddenly your TV screen is occupied by an advertisement that tells you that somebody is a bum, that somebody is no good, that somebody is terrible, that smears them. And at the end it says, ‘‘This advertisement was brought to you by Americans for peace and puppies and prosperity,’’ some completely imaginary group that was cooked up just to launch those advertisements, and whatever filth those advertisements contain is then disappeared with the end of that front group.

It is the political equivalent of toilet paper. You flush it when you are done with the filth, and whoever is behind it keeps their hands clean.

So we now have a tsunami of slime— as one writer put it—flowing through our country, and it is denying our citizens the most fundamental right they have when they vote, which is to know who the actors are and who is doing what to whom.

Well, in this bill is the DISCLOSE Act that would fix that. If you spend more than 10 grand in an election, you have to report it. And I don’t care how many shell corporations and donors trusts and phony 501(c)(4)s you line up to blockade your identity, our bill will get through it.

It superdrills through however many screens you put up, and the American public will, at last, once again, know who is really talking to them in their elections. Dark money takes away voters’ rights to know who is talking to them and what is going on in their democracy. It is a fundamental right.

And, unfortunately, it doesn’t end there because the other rights that my colleagues have so eloquently talked about—to get to the ballot, to be treated fairly at the ballot, to not be harassed on the way to the ballot, to be able to get a ballot mailed to you—the Republican efforts around the country to attack those rights, to suppress votes those ways, do you know how that is being done? It is being done with dark money.

We know it because they have been caught. It is not a matter of debate or dispute. When these enterprises are set up to deprive—what Reverend Warnock calls ‘‘some people’’—some people of their right to vote, and when the laws are done so that that is accomplished against, particularly, African-American voters with what one court called ‘‘surgical precision,’’ that is not happening at random. It is happening because enormous amounts of anonymous money are flowing into groups to make it happen.

And I will close with two examples. One is called Heritage Action, which is—the current state of the art on this is you set up a phony 501(c)(3) and a phony 501(c)(4), and they are a pair. And the money to the 501(c)(3) is deductible, and the political dirty work is done by the 501(c)(4).

And Heritage Foundation, which we have all heard about, is the 501(c)(3), and Heritage Action is its 501(c)(4). And Heritage Action was recorded talking to its secret donors.

And the person who was making the presentation to the secret donors in April of 2021 said:

“We worked quietly with the . . . legislature. We got the best practices to them. We helped draft the bills. We made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony. In some cases, we actually [drafted the bills] for them or we have a sentinel”—

Think about that word for a minute, a ‘‘sentinel’’—

“on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.

She said: And we did this with ‘‘little fanfare. Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’’’

Well, the DISCLOSE Act will stop it from being that easy to have an out-ofstate, dark money campaign take a State legislature and get them to pass voter suppression laws without the State legislatures even knowing who is behind them. And that is on tape. I am not making this up.

The other one that is always worth looking at are our friends at the Honest Elections Project, which actually doesn’t exist. What exists is something called the 85 Fund. And the 85 Fund is allowed, under Virginia law, Senator KAINE, to have a fictitious name and to operate as if it were operating under its fictitious name.

And it has several, one is the Judicial Crisis Network, which we all know helped stock the Court with rightwing judges, but another one is the Honest Elections Project. The Honest Elections Project and the Honest Election Project Action are the pair that work on this.

Money has poured into this effort, and the Honest Elections Project has been smack in the middle of it. In 2012, 77 percent of its money came through donors’ trusts, which is a great identity-laundering device for rightwing dark money; in 2013, 96 percent; in 2014, 88 percent; in 2015, 84 percent; in 2016, 82.6 percent; in 2017, 93 percent; in 2018, 88.8 percent; and in 2020, the year that the Honest Elections Project waged dark money voter suppression, the 85 Fund received over $45 million, identity laundered through donors’ trusts. And much of that money came from one single $19 million contribution. Somebody wrote a $19 million check to suppress votes.

Folks, if we don’t get to the bottom of this, we are going to have a real problem on our hands. And when we get to the bottom of this, the American public will be with us because they hate this stuff. You can be a Bernie Bro or you can be a Tea Partier and you can disagree on everything, and you agree that big dark money corruption has no place in American democracy.

This is the issue where Senator MCCONNELL’s political minions met with the Koch brothers’ political minions, and they did whatever ‘‘minioning’’ they do together. And their conversation got out to Jane Mayer, who wrote about it, and this was the issue that they said to each other: We can’t dirty this up. No matter how hard we try to put a good spin on this, voters hate dark money corruption. Our voters hate it just as much as their voters.

So this is our chance to fix this to take out the dark money behind the voter suppression effort in all these States.

This isn’t happening, folks. It is being done. And we have got to pay attention to who is doing it. And when we do, we will restore that fundamental voting right of all Americans to know who is talking to them in their elections—to have ours be a democracy without masks, without subterfuge, and without dark money.

I yield the floor.