Justin Miller

 Justin Miller is a writing fellow for The American Prospect.

Recent Articles

Court Upholds Delaware Dark Money Disclosure Law

Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District upheld the constitutionality of Delaware’s Election Disclosure Act. The 2012 law, which is a transparency safeguard instituted after Citizens United v. FEC, closed the loophole allowing outside groups to evade disclosure as long as their ads, known as “sham issue ads,” refrained from expressly advocating for a certain candidate’s victory or defeat.

For instance, the ad could simply say “Call Senator So-and-So and tell them to stop doing such and such.” The 2012 disclosure act stipulates that if an outside political group mentions any Delaware candidate in a message, it must identify itself and who its main donors are. And in upholding the law, a three-judge panel unanimously rejected the plaintiff’s argument that disclosure should be confined specifically to instances of “express advocacy.”

“The Delaware Elections Disclosure Act promotes transparency in elections, which the Supreme Court has long recognized as a vital governmental interest, and yesterday’s ruling ensures that Delaware voters will continue to have access to the information they need to make informed decisions on Election Day,” said Tara Malloy, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, in a statement.

Campaign finance reform advocates call this law one of the strongest state disclosure laws in the country. It’s actually largely based on federal law that was passed in the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, which was the last major act of campaign finance reform at the federal level. There are a number of states that have instituted similar provisions that keep unaccountable groups from swaying voters.

Chalk this up as one small win in the broader fight to expose the big-money billionaires who run rampant in our brave, new post-Citizens world.

Scott Walker Weasels Away from Campaign Coordination Investigation

A shocking decision came down from the Wisconsin Supreme Court today that quite literally destroys a longstanding investigation into whether Governor Scott Walker illegally coordinated with right-wing political groups during his 2012 recall campaign. This comes just three days after he formally announced his presidential run.

As ThinkProgress reports, the court, voting along partisan lines, ruled that in order to “prevent the chilling of otherwise protected speech” investigators must “permanently destroy all copies of information and other materials obtained through the investigation” and ordered that all those accused of illegal coordination doesn’t have to cooperate with investigators any longer.

Watchdog groups have called out the court for refusing to recuse justices with very clear conflicts of interest. And in one of those lovely twists of fate only found in the world of American politics, the groups that Walker allegedly coordinated with were fundamental in electing a number of the conservative judges currently on the bench.

The decision is a devastating blow for campaign finance reform advocates because a successful investigation could have set broad precedent for future political campaigns. It is possible, according to The New York Times, that the decision will be appealed before the United States Supreme Court.

“This decision effectively eviscerates contribution limits in Wisconsin,” said Daniel Weiner, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, in a statement. “By limiting the reach of Wisconsin coordination rules to ‘express advocacy,’ for or against candidates, the court has made campaign finance law extraordinarily easy to evade. No other court has gone this far and for good reason—it is a misreading of the law and threatens fair and transparent elections.”

Here’s a very helpful video from The New York Times on why it’s so easy—despite campaign law—for politicians to coordinate with super PACs and other shadowy groups.

For more on the pile of dark money that Scott Walker has used throughout his slithery political ascension, read Prospect columnist Adele Stan’s detailing of his long history of donor scandals.

Bernie is Putting Black Youth Unemployment Front and Center

A point of criticism regarding Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign is that as an old white man from the whitest state in the union, he’s not good at talking about racial issues in the United States. He’s more comfortable, the argument goes, focusing broadly on issues of economic inequality and unwieldy corporate influence.

The critique, however, doesn’t mesh well with reality. While Sanders may not be perfect on race—his closest advisers are on the older, male-er, and paler side and he has next to no name recognition among the black community—he’s proven a willingness to go beyond the obligatory liberal lip service.

In addition to calling for a complete reform of policing practices and saying that America as a country must apologize for slavery (how controversial, right?), Sanders is going a step further: He’s increasingly calling out the lack of discourse on and solutions for black unemployment.

“How do you discuss Ferguson and not know that, in that particular community, unemployment is off the charts?" the democratic socialist said in an extensive interview with The Nation. "How do you discuss Baltimore and not know that, in that particular community, unemployment is off the charts?"

Nationally the black unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, compared with 4.6 percent for whites. The unemployment disparity, however, is far more striking for youth. The unemployment rate for young African Americans is 21.4 percent—seven percentage points more than the national youth unemployment rate.

Early last month, Sanders introduced the Employ Young Americans Now Act (he previously introduced the same bill last year) in a neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C., that’s long struggled with high unemployment rates. The legislation calls for the creation of one million jobs for disadvantaged young people by sending $5.5 billion in funds to state and local job-training programs—much of which would be aimed at areas with persistent black unemployment. 

Still, Sanders has a long way to go to get any significant portion of the black vote in the Democratic primaries. A recent poll shows that 91 percent of non-white voters prefer frontrunner Hillary Clinton, while only 3 percent intend to vote for Sanders. “We’re reaching out, but it’s no secret that Bernie represents a state that is heavily Caucasian, and his decades of work on issues of importance to African Americans aren’t known amid the national conversation on race that is underway,” a Sanders adviser told The New York Times.

His polling numbers among minorities may increase as his name recognition and platform awareness increases. By placing black youth unemployment, along with a cadre of other policies, on the marquee of his campaign platform, Sanders is showing that he’s aware, he’s not oblivious, and he’s willing to make outreach to the black community a priority.

As Collier Meyerson notes for Fusion, though, Clinton is echoing Sanders. At a speech at a community college in South Carolina last month, she announced a plan to combat rampant youth unemployment by offering tax credits to businesses that bring on young apprentices. And advisers said she’ll unveil more concrete plans aimed at black youth unemployment this summer.

Clinton has embedded recognition among the country’s black voters, and as Clinton mirrors some of Sanders’s ideas, the Vermont senator will have his work cut out for him as he attempts to ensure his broader platform for addressing economic inequality remains distinct, and as he works for greater recognition and support among a broader swath of American voters. Homing in on black youth unemployment could be a good jumping-off point. 

How Obama Could Crack Down on Dark Money Without Congress

The White House is considering an executive order aimed at the undisclosed political contributions of federal contractors. 

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
AP Photo/Evan Vucci A combination of pressure from progressive organizations, support from congressional Democrats, and legal assurance from the courts could compel President Obama to levy his first blow to the secretive scourge of dark money in American politics. All it would take is an executive order that requires all federal contractors to disclose their dark-money spending—contributions to shadowy 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6) nonprofits. The only question that remains: Will he put his pen to paper? Advocates of the action argue that for Obama, this is a chance to further define his legacy on an issue that he’s notably spoken out against yet has so far refrained from any real action. At a 2010 DNC rally, Obama declared that special interest groups that pour money into attack ad campaigns without ever having to disclose their spending are “a threat to our democracy.” In his 2015 State of the Union address, the president called for political reform: “A better politics is one where we...

Why It Will Take Another Watergate to Pass Campaign Finance Reform

Back in January, Congressman John Sarbanes introduced the Government By the People Act. It’s an ambitious bill that would bring a sea change to our much-maligned campaign finance system.

The bill has three main tenets aimed at amplifying the power of small donors. It would create a $25 tax credit for political donations up to $50; establish a six-to-one matching system for donations up to $150 to House and Senate candidates; give enhanced matching funds to candidates who are combating significant outside spending. Small donors would also be able to bundle contributions into something of a People’s PAC.

Essentially, by increasing the monetary footprint of small donors, this would give incentive to politicians to talk more with everyday constituents about things that impact them rather than jet-setting across the country going to fundraisers and only hearing about the importance of keeping the carried-interest loophole in place. And yes, it is sad that it takes a piece of legislation to make politicians campaign to the people they actually represent.

The legislation is based on past campaign finance reform legislation, just modernized to deal with the post-Citizens United world we live in. It also borrows from some of the most effective policies that states and cities have successfully implemented. Critically, the legislation follows the one pathway the courts have left to even the playing field: adding more, not less, money to politics.

“If this bill became law, it would greatly change the priorities of Congress, making them more responsive to the priorities of everyday Americans,” says Aaron Scherb, the legislative affairs director for Common Cause.

Along with Sarbanes, 149 Democrats and (surprisingly) one Republican have co-sponsored the legislation. There’s also a similar companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin. The law stems from the Fair Elections Now Act of 2008, which nearly passed when Democrats had control of Congress. But with a Republican-controlled Congress that has shown less than no interest in considering campaign finance reform, things look bleak. It failed to gain traction when introduced in the 112th and 113th Congress. This time around, GovTrack gives it a full 0 percent chance of being enacted.

Scherb puts it a little more clearly: “We’ll probably have to wait for a scandal or a crisis to occur for it to pass.”

Still, Sarbanes remains adamant that it can pass—and he appears to be going on something of media campaign to get the word out. Last month he did an interview with The Washington Post and Washington Monthly. And this week, Jon Schwarz of The Intercept published an interesting two-part interview with the Congressman.  

“It’s like with that Verizon ad: ‘Can you hear me now?’ Right now candidates can only hear the $1000 donor, the PAC donor. But if you have those people sitting in that living room with that match, all of a sudden you can hear them,” Sarbanes tells The Intercept.

The second installation of the interview gets into how Sarbanes goes about marketing an issue with a lot of populist support but next to no political feasibility: “Somebody’s going to own your government. It’s not going to just sit there unattended. It’s either going to be owned by special interests and big money, in which case when it comes to making policy that’s who we’ll work for. Or it’s going to be owned by you. And in America, if you want to own something, you’ve got to pay for it.”

The point being: democracy will come with a price tag. But first, somebody is probably going to have to get caught with their hand in the industry cookie jar in a very big way.

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