VOICES: Buying elections with dirty money

By Jennifer Rennicks, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

At two weeks and counting, we are officially in the home stretch of the 2010 midterm election season. Every election cycle in our country brings candidates together to debate the issues and pundits together to analyze those comments before allowing citizens to have the final say in the voting booths. This year, however, big money -- especially dirty money from fossil fuel energy interests -- may have the final say in influencing the outcome of the elections.

Earlier this year, a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in the Citizens United case declaring the government may not ban or limit political spending by corporations in candidate elections. This decision effectively overrules campaign contribution limits, allowing unprecedented and anonymous contributions from major donors to large, recently formed PACs (political action committees) in support of a specific candidate or issue. As long as these new "super PACs" don't "officially coordinate" with a declared candidate, spending limits can be ignored and the airwaves can be dominated by the best-funded messenger. Furthermore, with direct oil and gas contributions to candidates at an all-time high, this election cycle could be one of the most expensive in history.

California and its Prop 23 ballot measure that aims to stall implementation of the state's climate law may seem a world away from the Southeastern United States, but that ballot measure may be a bellwether for clean energy policies in the coming years. Out-of-state oil giants like Valero, Tesoro and Koch Industries have mounted a massive multimillion-dollar campaign to support Proposition 23, eerily reminiscent of another recent ballot measure in California. Despite nearly double-digit support for that clean energy ballot measure in 2006, last-minute spending tipped the balance days before the election and, as a result, 54% of voters sided with the oil companies and against the clean energy proposition.

Closer to home, American Crossroads -- one of the new "super PACs" supported by oil companies and Wall Street firms -- had spent nearly $250,000 in support of but not coordinated with the campaign of Florida Senatorial candidate Marco Rubio as of late September. In addition, three other Congressional candidates from Florida received direct campaign contributions from the Texas Freedom Fund, a PAC directed by Texas Rep. Joe Barton and heavily supported by oil and gas companies. Check out this interactive map from Center for American Progress Action Fund showing how Big Polluters are also Big Spenders when it comes to television ads that may influence election outcomes next month.

With almost limitless war chests, it's fair to say that by Nov. 2 moneyed interests will have saturated the airwaves and direct mailings in most every state, including several here in the Southeast. The challenge for voters who are concerned about our energy policies and choices is to discover who the clean energy candidates are and then to support them in the voting booth. A variety of tools -- from candidate endorsements to newspaper questionnaires to annual issue-based scorecards -- can help you determine who best aligns with your interests.

If you live in North Carolina or Tennessee, early voting has already begun! A non-partisan N.C. voters guide is here, and you can locate your closest Early Voting Polling place here. For those in Tennessee, consult the Department of State early voting guide for more information. Other states including South Carolina have already begun in-person absentee voting to enable you to cast your vote before Nov. 2.

NonProfitVote.org has a helpful, voter-resource website with state-specific pages for the Southeastern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.