'Dark Money’ documentary sheds light on elections
by Luanne Williams

How dangerous to democracy is the veil of secrecy surrounding campaign contributions?

Midterm elections are less than two months away, and although voters may feel empowered as they head to the polls in November, the ability to control political outcomes may lie more with untraceable corporate donors than with individual participants in the democratic process. That’s the premise of “Dark Money,” a Sundance-award-winning documentary to be shown Tuesday at Wingate University.

Kimberly Reed, white woman with long blonde hair.

“I am excited our film is being released in the midst of the 2018 election cycle,” says Kimberly Reed, who directed the film and produced it with help from Katy Chevigny. “Campaign spending is the most fundamental political problem facing our democracy, and I believe our film comes at a critical time to help solve some of those problems, educate viewers, and inspire citizens to ‘follow the money’ all the way to campaign-finance reform.”

In 2010, when the Supreme Court opened the door for unlimited election spending by corporations through its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Reed remembers feeling heartsick.

“Like many Americans, I found the ideas that ‘corporations are people' and 'money is speech' to be ludicrous,” she says. “But worse than that was the easily foreseeable outcome that political power would be controlled by fewer and fewer, richer and richer people.”

Learning that her home state of Montana would fight the new law – Montana passed the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections) in 2015 – the filmmaker felt confident she would have the perfect backdrop for a documentary to show the effects of Citizens United. Her expectations were on target. “Dark money” contributions, funds given to nonprofit organizations that are funneled to political campaigns without disclosure of the donors’ identities, increased 60-fold in 2012, and spending for this year has outpaced that of 2016.

“The only way to really understand how the dark-money shell game works is to follow the nonprofit corporations over multiple election cycles as they pop up, disintegrate, reconstitute and wreak havoc once again,” Reed explains. “I played this game of Whack-A-Mole over three election cycles in what became the perfect environment to tell the campaign-finance story. Montana was not only the first and hardest hit with dark money but also the state that fought back the hardest with grassroots citizen outrage.”

John Adams, white man in ball cap and red plaid shirt

Reed says “Dark Money,” which in part shadows investigative journalist John Adams, puts a human face to that fight, and she says it’s a fight that knows no boundaries. “It was important to me to remind folks that campaign spending is not just a liberal or conservative issue,” she says, “and it affects all Americans, not just Montanans, regardless of ideology.”

Reed will be on hand Tuesday at the 7 p.m. showing of “Dark Money” to discuss the film with the audience inside the Batte Center’s McGee Theatre. The showing is part of the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers, a program of South Arts supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Union County Community Arts Council has teamed up with the University to bring the series to Wingate.

Admission to “Dark Money” is free, but registration is required. Call 704-233-8300 for details.