More ethics reform needed, some say Critics want issues such as political ‘dark money’ disclosure to be addressed (copy)

The South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. 

Campaign contributions are a useful way for people to directly support their preferred candidates for public office.

But there’s a significant difference between donating a few hundred dollars to, say, someone running for the local school board and spending a few hundred thousand dollars to sway the outcome of that election.

And it’s troubling that South Carolina law generally requires greater transparency for the smaller donation than the larger one.

Yet so-called dark money — campaign-related spending funneled through nonprofit organizations not required to disclose their donors — is a big deal in state politics at almost every level.

A recent Post and Courier investigation identified at least $6 million in anonymous spending on South Carolina elections in 2018, for example, which was more money than all of the candidates for the state House combined were able to raise.

And that money may just be the tip of the iceberg, since it represents only what reporters could track down through other disclosures, such as television advertising contracts.

One nonprofit called the Charleston Coalition for Kids spent at least $235,000 on the Charleston County School Board race, which was well over four times as much as all of the candidates for four seats on the board spent on the election, according to The Post and Courier’s Paul Bowers.

Of course, while the candidates endorsed by the Charleston Coalition for Kids were all successful in their campaigns (and were also endorsed by this editorial staff), dark money spending in South Carolina has a more mixed record of success across the state. No amount of money can guarantee a win.

But it would still be of tremendous value to voters to know who pays for political ads, and to better understand the potential motivations behind messages supporting or attacking candidates for public office.

Indeed, donors who give more than $100 up to the maximum amount of $1,000 directly to candidates for local office or $3,500 to candidates for statewide office are already disclosed in publicly available campaign finance reports.

But nonprofit organizations, including those formed expressly for the purpose of political advocacy, don’t have to disclose their donors and can spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.

There are constitutionally sound reasons to defend that kind of spending to an extent — the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that political contributions are a form of speech, and political speech, including anonymous speech, is heavily protected.

Nevertheless, the potential for abuse is obvious.

Previous efforts to bring dark money under control in South Carolina — including a 2017 bill that would have required disclosure of donations over $1,000 to politically active nonprofits — have failed or been struck down in court.

Still, a narrowly tailored bill that brings transparency to large donations and expenditures would help shine much-needed sunlight on South Carolina’s murky campaign ethics without unduly burdening the ability to donate to candidates and causes.

All but two other states have some form of dark money restrictions in place.

Campaign spending can enhance democracy by drawing attention to important issues and raising awareness of otherwise overlooked causes, among other possible benefits. But there’s no reason why South Carolina voters should be kept in the dark about where the money comes from.