theSkimm's Guide to Money in Politics


The story

Money in politics has always been a big issue, but after a 2010 Supreme Court case, it became a really, really big issue.

What's this case?

Citizens United. The Supremes ruled that election spending counts as free speech. So now, anyone – individuals, unions, companies – is allowed to spend as much as they could possibly want on an election.

I'm bored. Why is this a big deal?

Because candidates want your vote, but they also need money. So people who are rolling in it end up having a lot more influence over elections. These people used to donate to a PAC. But after Citizens United, they started putting a lot more of their cash money into Super PACs.

What's a PAC?

A political action committee. They can give money directly to candidates and political parties. But there are rules: PACs are only allowed to give $5,000 per candidate and $15,000 per party in an election.

And what's the other one?

Super PACs. These are PACs on steroids. They can’t do things like pay for candidates’ private jets, hotel rooms, or anything directly contributing to the campaign. But TV ads are fair game, and they can spend unlimited cash on ones supporting their candidate – and hating on opponents. They do need to disclose their donors, which is why a lot of people and groups prefer to go dark.

What's that?

We’re talking “dark money.” People and groups that don’t want the rest of the world to know what they’re spending on elections can donate to certain kinds of nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their donors. These are organizations that have gotten the OK from the IRS to give cash to “social-welfare” causes like gun control or protecting the environment. They can also foot the bill for ads supporting candidates who are into their causes.

Sounds complicated.

Yup. Recently, the head of the Federal Election Commission – which literally exists to make sure everyone’s following campaign finance laws – said there's really no way to make sure everyone’s following campaign finance laws. Which is just...great.


There are a lot of rules to campaign finance. And a lot of loopholes. The 2016 presidential race was one of the most expensive elections on the books. TBD on what that means for the 2018 midterms...and beyond.

Sign up for the Daily Skimm and join the millions who already wake up with us.