Twitter: A Loophole for Campaign Finance Rules?
November 17, 2014
November 17, 2014
During the 2014 midterm elections, voters were bombarded with advertisements not only from candidates and their parties, but also from outside groups and political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, or individuals. A series of Supreme Court rulings that decided corporations have the same free speech rights as individual citizens and loosened restrictions on campaign spending have changed politics drastically over the past few election cycles made this onslaught possible.
There is one caveat: Campaigns and these political action committees cannot coordinate their efforts. Of course, an outside group would maximize its investment if it had inside information from a campaign, such as internal polling numbers that would show where an outside group’s money would be most useful.
A campaign would need a unique approach to sharing this information without running into trouble. Smoke signals? Morse code? Carrier pigeons?
CNN reports that Twitter was the method of choice for some campaigns and political action committees during the 2014 midterms:
Republicans and outside groups used anonymous Twitter accounts to share internal polling data ahead of the midterm elections, CNN has learned, a practice that raises questions about whether they violated campaign finance laws that prohibit coordination.
A typical tweet read: “CA-40/43-44/49-44/44-50/36-44/49-10/16/14-52–>49/476-10s.” The source said posts like that — which would look like gibberish to most people — represented polling data for various House races.
It doesn’t take a code breaker to understand those are likely poll numbers of some kind. It may have been by design that this information was publicly available—it’s unclear if the parties violated campaign finance law or not because those accounts were public, meaning anyone could have gathered that data.
The dance between a campaign and political action committees aligned with its goals is always a carefully choreographed display. In the Massachusetts gubernatorial primary, it turns out candidate Steve Grossman’s mother was the largest contributor to a Super PAC that benefitted his campaign—even appearing in a PAC ad supporting her own son. During the final election, Charlie Baker came under fire for refusing to disavow a particularly aggressive ad against democratic candidate and state Attorney General Martha Coakley. If backlash against an ad is particularly severe, a candidate may call on a PAC to take it down, but the PAC is under no obligation to do so.
In this new era of unfettered spending, it’s critical that the Federal Election Commission set ground rules on what constitutes collaboration, and what does not. Experts say it’s unlikely the watchdog will investigate this series of tweets. Does that mean we’ll see more cryptic posts in 2016 as we gear up for a presidential election? Let’s hope some firm rules are in place by then, lest even more voters stay home, convinced the rich have already chosen a winner.