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Dark money flows into Oregon

A multi-million dollar advertising blitz on behalf of U.S. Senate candidate Monica Wehby is the latest example of a new wrinkle in campaign spending: dark money.

It’s called dark money not because those spending it are necessarily evil — that characterization depends on your political leanings — but because those donating the cash get to do so anonymously.

In the Oregon example, a group calling itself Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce is reportedly spending $3.6 million on television ads attacking Sen. Jeff Merkley over his opposition to balanced budget legislation. The group, connected to the billionaire Koch Brothers’ political network, is not required to disclose its donors or the amounts they give.

Lest anyone think this phenomenon is limited to the conservative side of the spectrum, know that dark money spending by liberal groups soared this year. The nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics reported earlier this year that liberal groups had ramped up their spending 6,700 percent over the same period in the 2012 election cycle.

The latest figures show conservative dollars still make up more than 65 percent of the total, but they are not alone.

These groups, known as 501(c)(4) organizations in the tax code, are so-called “social welfare” groups — nonprofits that are able to deep their tax-exempt status as long as they are “primarily” involved in non-campaign activity — a vague standard at best.

The Supreme Court, in its ruling in the Citizens United case that paved the way for unfettered spending by large donors, specifically said Congress could require public disclosure of donors without violating the Constitution. But Congress has refused to do so.

Supporters of unlimited campaign spending argue that money is a form of free speech and it is wrong to limit it.

The ever-increasing amounts being poured into campaigns would be far less troublesome if voters knew where the money was coming from. Then they could evaluate the messages being disseminated based on the interests behind the advertising.

Some argue that requiring disclosure would discourage political participation by donors who value their privacy. If those donors are proud of their political convictions, they should have no problem putting their mouths where their money is. If not, then maybe discouraging their donations wouldn’t be such a bad thing.