Charleston Coalition for Kids spending big on candidates

The dark money group won’t tell us how much but several indicators suggest it could be in the tens of thousands.
The dark money group won’t tell us how much but several indicators suggest it could be in the tens of thousands.
Published: Nov. 7, 2022 at 6:18 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 7, 2022 at 6:36 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Legislators across the country are at odds over who can vote, where and how, but very few are talking about the shadow organizations influencing our elections by spending huge amounts of money in local races. They often operate under the radar, but what they are doing is perfectly legal.

For candidates, election laws are very clear. They have to report all the money they’ve raised, the names of all of their donors and how they are spending that money, but groups like Charleston Coalition for Kids – a 503(c)4 – don’t have to report almost anything.

Political science professor Gibbs Knotts says that’s a problem.

“We like to say that we have, you know, one person one vote, but if somebody is able to give a lot of money and have an undue influence, that certainly makes me uncomfortable as somebody who studies this who cares a lot about democracy,” Knotts said.

We can’t know for sure how much they’re spending but there are some ways to get an idea.

For example, Facebook publishes all of its ad buys. In the last month, the Charleston Coalition for Kids Facebook page has spent between $18,100 and $33,251 on its candidates – creating 1.1 million impressions and that’s the low estimate.

Then we have campaign mailers. The postal service has a calculator for estimating the cost of campaign mailers - the estimates for the cheapest options come out 71 cents each. Just one mailer sent to all 265,000 voter addresses in Charleston County - would cost roughly $196,000.

“I definitely think it has an impact. It’s not super surprising that there’s more money in these races. I mean, so much of politics has become nationalized and people from you know, outside of the state or outside of the district pump money in to sort of trying to get various ideological positions advanced through their candidacies. And so I’m not super surprised,” Knotts said.

These are just two ways the coalition attempts to reach voters. We have no idea how much is being spent on the direct text messages that are currently bombarding cellphones or other campaign materials.

However, this spending spree of dark money being pumped into hyper-local elections is perfectly legal. The coalition’s website says it wants to promote transparency at Charleston County School District.

“I think that you want, you want transparency, you want sunlight. It’s important for voters to know who’s contributing to candidates and you need to be able to see a list and it’s a lot easier when you’re talking about individuals,” Knotts said.

We asked the coalition how much money they’re putting into these races and who their donors are. They did not answer any of our questions instead saying:

“The Charleston Coalition for Kids, which is made up of parents, teachers, and community leaders, empowers voters with information about Charleston School Board elections.  We believe the stakes this year are as high as they have ever been, with all nine seats open on the board responsible for student outcomes, a nearly $1 billion annual budget, and identifying the next Superintendent.   We are proud to endorse and invest in an incredible group of candidates, and believe each of them will fight to ensure a world class public education for all children, no matter their zip code.”

Coalition for Kids isn’t the only group putting money into the school board race – other 503(c)4 nonprofits get to take advantage of the laws the shield them from publicly disclosing how they’re spending money. These include groups like Moms for Liberty who have also sent out campaign mailers.