Retiring Michigan Elections Director On ‘Dark Money,’ Threats to Democratic Process

Chris Thomas, the longest-serving elections director in the nation, joins Detroit Today to talk career, campaign finance

Jake Neher/WDET

Nearly every major federal and state election in the last five years has set new record spending levels, and it’s becoming harder and harder to track who or where that money is coming from.  

In the last election cycle, just 40 families combined to give $44 million in political contributions.   

Since the 2010 landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision, PACs created to either elect or defeat candidates can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions—without having to disclose donor names.

Critics say these powerful crops of funds — often dubbed ‘dark money’ — have an increasingly unchecked influence over our elections. Michigan election director Chris Thomas is the longest serving state elections director in the country. He tells Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson that as a result, public cynicism is at an all-time high. 

“If officeholders make decisions, and the special interests that fund those office owners are not known, I think that’s a real problem,” he says. 

Thomas has shepherded elections under both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state for the last 36 years. He says both parties are complicit. 

Rick Pluta/MPRN

“Republicans will defend campaign funding while Democrats often criticize non-disclosure—but they’re right in there raising the money and using the money,” he says.

“Both sides are really taking advantage of this.” 

Thomas says Michigan is behind in writing policy to mandate disclosure from campaign donors. 

“One way would be a ballot proposal,” he says. “The other would be a scandal down the road drawing public attention to a level where something has to be done.” 

Click on the audio player above to listen to the full conversation


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