Transparency Needed in GOTV Efforts

A quote often falsely attributed to Winston Churchill: “Anyone who is under 35 and not a liberal has no heart. Anyone who is over 35 and not a conservative has no brain.” While the quote could be analyzed in depth by people as a simplification of the changing of people’s political beliefs over their lifetime, it has a strange relevance during an election season here at Montana State.

You’ve no doubt noticed the paid canvassers standing on the mall for several weeks now pushing people to make sure they are registered to vote. Along with other efforts such as moving polling places to campus and local candidates focusing on turnout for students, much time, effort and resources have been made by everyone including our own university president to make sure you are aware there is an election and you should make sure to pick up a ballot and vote.

However, not all the efforts are as transparent or honest as they may seem. Many of the groups behind these voter drives are what’s known as “dark money.” Dark money refers to funds spent generally by non-profit groups to influence elections, since the rules pertaining to non-profits allows them to spend up to 50 percent of their time and funds engaging in politics without having to disclose who’s funding them.

Democrats have been extremely duplicitous in their fight against “dark” money in state politics. In addition to the state party and individual candidates raising money for their campaigns, they are also the beneficiaries of independent committees from environmental and special interest groups like Forward Montana that can often spend money without disclosing where it’s coming from. This may include paid canvassers here at MSU who are getting you to register to vote because they believe you are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.  

Even Cruzado is not above motivating her own little army to achieve her own politically motivated ends here on campus. Cruzado took the unprecedented step of taking on a local Republican legislator last year over their continued votes against funding a renovation of Romney gym. While Republican Art Wittich argued that the project’s large price tag did not merit taking on over $100 million in state debt (the project was included in a larger infrastructure bill), Cruzado pointedly disagreed, citing the university’s almost decade-old request for its renovation.
In 2014 local Democratic legislator Zach Brown also pushed student get-out-the-vote events and rides to poll at Montana State. In addition to sending some of his paid staff into classrooms and handing out pledge cards to students, his own get-out-the-vote parties had materials to make sure and vote for him in the upcoming election. Brown was later sanctioned by the Commissioner of Political Practices for breaking campaign laws when he told students he was conducting Get Out the Vote activities that later turned out to be campaign events for his own legislative campaign.  Members of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee were also involved in the deceptive pushes to get students to the polls.

Voter information collected by some of these canvassers can also be fed into systems that are directly accessed by political parties and candidates. Left leaning groups like Forward Montana and right leaning groups like Americans for Prosperity use the same voter systems and databases that Democratic and Republican candidates use for their campaigns. The NGPVAN and i360 voter systems used by these dark money groups collect information on voters and then sell that information to each side for use in their election efforts. However, because the information is processed and analyzed by an outside third party who owns the software and information, state election officials do not consider this coordination with the political parties.

It’s perfectly reasonable for the two political parties to do everything they can to get their respective bases to the polls so they can win elections. However, it’s deceptive and unfair for groups that would benefit most from young people voting mostly Democrat to pretend they are engaging in simple “Get Out the Vote” activities. From Democratic politicians to dark money groups to a university president who wouldn’t have to find another sugar daddy donor to fund her millions in renovations, many groups stand to gain from strong student turnout this election. They should be more honest about their intentions.