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Dark Money and the 2012 Election: We Need Your Help!

Join ProPublica’s campaign to shine a light on the hidden aspects of campaign finance by chronicling ad spending in Las Vegas, one of the nation’s most heavily blanketed cities.

When historians dissect the 2012 elections, they will almost certainly look beyond the daily ebb and flow of momentum to a larger truth: This was the year outside spending exploded.

The election will cost a record $6 billion, with super PACs and other outside groups spending more than $1 billion — up 260 percent from 2008. Dark money groups have spent at least $302.5 million this year, a figure that doesn’t account for activity not reported to the Federal Elections Commission. In some races, we found, dark money represented the majority of spending on behalf of both candidates.

As our reporting has shown, these dark money groups avoid disclosing their donors by saying they are “social welfare” nonprofits under IRS rules, then spend vast sums on political activity (read: how nonprofits spend millions on elections and call it social welfare).

One of the few ways to detail dark-money spending is to comb through thousands upon thousands of political ad contracts at local television stations, a process made only slightly more feasible this summer by a rule requiring stations in the top 50 television markets to put them online. The ruling came after months of resistance from the National Association of Broadcasters, who complained that the process would be too costly and onerous.

If it has been onerous for television stations to post them online, it has been more so for the people who have helped manually annotate those files through ProPublica’s Free the Files project. That’s because the Federal Communications Commission declined to require stations to post the information in a uniform format, leaving voters to parse through a jumble of PDF files. Nevertheless, hundreds of volunteers have done exactly that since the project launched five weeks ago.

It has been our most ambitious — and most successful — crowdsourcing effort ever, with 870 people helping to “free” $590 million from 10,400 ad contracts (and counting) over the last six weeks, using our document review tool to tell us exactly who bought ads and how much they spent in swing markets.

Why have so many people volunteered their time and energy to this project?

Ryan Thornburg, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, rallied his students to review documents to demonstrate how journalistic data is assembled in a digital age and how “arguments against releasing this data in machine-readable format don't hold water and, ultimately, are futile AND unpopular.”

Joy Piazza, Ph.D., reviewed more than 70 political ad files “because I believe in the ideals of democracy and I am concerned about the ways those ideals are diminished through political campaign spending policies and the companion ways those monies dominate conversations, perceptions, informed decision-making, and civil society.”

Free the Files localizes national political spending, giving voters the ability to see how outside groups are effecting elections where they live. Free the Files also allows voters to finally see dark money nonprofits in action, as we have in Ohioand Florida, instead of in the months (or years) it may take them to report their spendingto the Internal Revenue Service.

As of this writing, our volunteers have freed about 30 percent of the political ad files in 33 swing markets. This election day, we’ve vowed to free all the files in Las Vegas, which has seen more political ads air than any other market in the country. And tomorrow, we’ll continue our effort until we have a detailed accounting of dark money’s role in the 2012 election.

We thank the hundreds of volunteers who’ve made Free the Files their mission with us, and hope you’ll help us continue to fight the good fight. 

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