(Horseheads, N.Y.) – No one knows where one out of every eight dollars flowing into New York political campaigns comes from.
Trailblazers PAC, the nonpartisan clean government organization, found that of the $240 million raised by political campaigns and committees in New York State in 2017 (a year without without federal races), fully $31 million came from sources that are unknown due to the “unitemized contribution” loophole.
Much attention has been paid to so-called “dark money” entities such as limited liability corporations (LLCs), PACs, and 501(c)(4) organizations, which have various abilities under New York State law to shield original donors’ identities, even when spending money for electoral purposes.
Beyond these dark money shelters, however, a donor’s identity may also be hidden when donations arrive in dollar amounts that are smaller than the reporting threshold.
When a donor contributes under $100, New York State requires campaigns to disclose the money’s existence, but not the identity of the donor. While this may appear reasonable or efficient, the law allows campaigns to lump unlimited amounts of these “unitemized contributions” together.
This “unitemized contributions” rule allows candidates and committees throughout the state to receive eye-popping amounts of money from undisclosed donors.
For example, between 2006 and 2017, the East Rockaway Republican Finance Committee received over $445,000 in unitemized contributions. In the same period, the Cohoes County Democratic Committee pocketed $117,349.72 in unitemized contributions, and the Conservative Party of Monroe County took in $148,450. Individual candidates also report strikingly high sums.
These sums appear in state filing reports on a line that simply reads “unitemized,” in the place where a donor’s name would customarily appear. This is how one example from 2012 appears:
|Filing Year||Contributor||Amount||Date||Report Code||Schedule|
Trailblazers PAC reviewed and aggregated the data that has continued to inform the NYS Board of Elections financial disclosure database since it was launched in 1999. In that 18-year time frame, over $450 million has entered New York State and local elections as “unitemized contributions.”
The problem is not limited to races for state-level positions like governor, assembly member, senator, or attorney general. Nearly $32 million of unitemized contributions since 1999 ($2.5 million just in 2017) flowed into campaigns for offices at the county level and below, such as county legislator, town board member, highway superintendent, and sheriff.
Even the one-in-eight figure is probably low.
In addition to not requiring donors’ identity for donations under $100, New York State also does not require campaigns spending less than $1000 to file at all. New York has 62 counties, 932 towns, 62 cities, and 537 villages, and each one with its own elected officials. Those officials are most often elected in odd-numbered years, such as 2017. In those heavily-local years, the total number of campaigns for office happening across New York is 3000 or more, with the vast majority of those filing no report at all.