Daily Media Links 11/23: Giving the two parties even more money will not solve polarization, The FEC and Late-Night Comedy, and more…

In the News

Salt Lake Tribune: Why we’re suing the state to protect free speech

Connor Boyack and Billy Hesterman

While it makes sense to require disclosure from organizations whose primary or sole purpose is political — as they directly affect government processes and outcomes — the bill expanded the reporting requirements to include organizations whose political advocacy is infrequent and, more often than not, focused on advocacy and education.

That’s why HB 43 poses a problem. Organizations such as ours engage in a number of public interest activities, such as holding public forums, publishing educational materials and conducting original research. This is our primary purpose; by law, political advocacy on our part can be and is only a limited aspect of our overall effort.

Now imagine our donors, who have no interest in supporting our lobbying efforts. Mr. Smith might give $10,000 toward our general operations as a supporter of an aspect of our work, and neither he nor we intend to use that money for a political purpose. Nevertheless, under current Utah law, should our organizations spend more than $750 in a given year on any unrelated political advocacy, we must also disclose Mr. Smith’s identity and personal information.

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Associated Press: Nonprofits challenge Utah donor disclosure law

Michelle L. Price

In a lawsuit filed in federal court this week, the groups said the law unconstitutionally forces them to forgo their free speech right to speak on political issues, or risk losing donors who may not want to be disclosed.

Representatives for the nonprofits said that kept them from weighing in on a proposed sales tax increase that was on the ballot this fall in 17 Utah counties.

The Utah attorney general’s office has not filed a response to the lawsuit and office spokeswoman Camille Anderson declined to comment.

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Wall Street Journal: Sometimes Freedom Requires Confidentiality (LTE)

Allen Dickerson

The case to which Mr. Abrams refers, Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris, concerns the privacy of donors to charities that cannot by law engage in electoral advocacy. California’s policy cannot possibly help voters “make informed choices in the political marketplace,” in part because state officials promise to keep the information confidential.

While disclosure may be valuable where donors are seeking to influence election results, the same rationale does not apply to groups that aren’t engaged in politics.

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Political Parties

Vox: Giving the two parties even more money will not solve polarization

Lee Drutman

Here’s the quick summary of my take: Stronger parties will not move to the center because there are both few meaningful opportunities to move to the center and little meaningful center to move toward. The median voter theory on which they stake so much simply does not operate under our current political rules. The claim that small donors are polarizing reflects a failure to understand how a small-donor matching system would change the incentives of running for office and of giving.

And while I disagree with the conclusions La Raja and Schaffner reach, I happily recommend their book. It’s clearly written, full of data, and provocative. And I do agree with their implicit criticism that reformers often fail to investigate their assumptions and as a result develop overly simplistic and counterproductive models of the world, often in a too simple corruption framework.

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More Soft Money Hard Law: The FEC and Late-Night Comedy

Bob Bauer

FEC Chair Ravel is not the first former or present Commissioner to turn to Comedy Central to lampoon her own agency.  Trevor Potter, once also a Chair, came to run a major reform organization that collaborated on bits of high comedy with Stephen Colbert. He even would emerge for his performance in a shower of dollars from something called the Mazda Scandal Booth. But he was out of the agency then and Ms. Ravel is still running it, and she decided that she had had enough of the FEC’s dysfunction and would play it for laughs. One of her colleagues was not amused.

Chair Ravel defended her appearance as free speech and as the only way now, all else having failed, to make her point. The problem for the FEC in any resort to high comedy is that the audience may misunderstand the joke. It is not a far cry from laughing at the agency to laughing at the law and concluding that politicians will never make or enforce rules against their own interest. The same ridicule can and has been directed at reform proposals.

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New York Times: Influencers and their Interests: Ann Ravel

Kate Murphy

READING Sadly, I don’t have a lot of time to read novels, which I love. Instead, I tend to read mostly about campaign finance and democracy issues for my public speaking. The commission is severely divided, making it difficult to get anything done, so I’ve decided it’s important to go out to the public and talk about the issues. Right now, I’m reading “Broken Trust: Dysfunctional Government and Constitutional Reform,” by Stephen M. Griffin.

In between chapters, I read poetry. This week, it’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot. When I was growing up, my parents had a recording of T. S. Eliot reading it and it really spoke to me. It’s interesting reading it now, probably 30 years later.

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National Law Review: Federal Election Commission Provides Some Answers To Candidates and Super PACs

Here are the most salient things the agency said:

Individuals who are “testing the waters” to decide if they should run for federal office must still comply with the FEC’s rules requiring the use of federally permissible funds. This seems to preclude “testing the waters” Super PACs or 501(c)(4) organizations.

You become a “candidate” when you decide that you are going to run. It is this personal decision, and not the formal filing of papers with the FEC, that makes you a “candidate.”

There is no limit to how long you can think about running. You can “test the waters” for months or years, so long as you remain truly undecided about whether to run.

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” D. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg. If you publicly tell people you are running, the FEC will assume you mean it.

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Independent Groups

New York Times: Senator Rubio’s Stealthy Donors

Editorial Board

Until last month, virtually all of the senator’s television ads were financed by deep-pocketed donors operating secretly through a tax-exempt “social welfare” organization that claims independence from the senator while blatantly operating as an auxiliary of the Rubio electioneering machine…

By claiming “social welfare” status (which it clearly does not deserve), the group can keep the identity of its donors secret from voters. The Rubio people are not alone in adopting this strategy: Vital election and tax laws are being increasingly circumvented, as campaign strategists in both parties game the system with a message of catch-me-when-you-can. The Democrats worked from the social welfare shadows last year in campaigning for the Senate, collecting half of the $30 million in “dark money” raised by the group Patriot Majority USA from just five anonymous donors, according to the Center for Public Integrity watchdog group.

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Washington Post: Clinton’s campaign-finance hypocrisy

Lawrence Noble

However, you start a quick slide down a slippery slope and begin to lose credibility as a champion of campaign finance reform when you follow the herd and claim independence from your super PAC while taking actions anyone in the real world would consider coordination, relying on a useless FEC and a 9-year-old’s “everyone is doing it” defense.

And you slam into the bottom of that slippery slope when you create loopholes that undermine the law. You have then become the leader of the herd in a stampede over what remains of our campaign finance laws.

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Time: Here’s the New Way Republican Governors Are Pushing Their Ideas

Political organizations tied to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Florida Gov. Rick Scott are diverging from the typical so-called leadership PACs used by federal lawmakers and some governors to amass power because they are not just giving campaign contributions to like-minded legislators. Instead they are pushing the governors’ legislative agendas with public campaigns far removed from the campaign trail.

The Rauner and Scott groups resemble that of another prominent chief executive facing resistant lawmakers: President Obama’s Organizing for Action, a nonprofit formed from his former presidential campaign committees. The group has advocated for Obama’s legislative priorities, such as the Affordable Care Act.

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Center for Public Integrity: Liberal ‘dark money’ group rails against ‘dark money’

Dave Levinthal

One catch: The group behind the video, a nonprofit called American Family Voices, doesn’t generally reveal who funds its operations — although a Center for Public Integrity review of Internal Revenue Service and Department of Labor records indicates large unions, environmental interests and a major corporate retail lobbying group have this decade provided it with six- or seven-figure contributions…

The situation is emblematic of liberals increasingly complicated, if not tortured relationship with “dark money” — shorthand for the potentially limitless cash used by certain nonprofits, which aren’t required to disclose their donors, to either promote or pummel political candidates.

It also may refer to secret funds used to push broader political influence campaigns.

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Boston Globe: The birth of the super PAC

Renee Loth

The case, called SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, tested whether super PACs — committees that raise and spend money on behalf of candidates but do not coordinate with their campaigns — should be subject to the same kind of contribution limits (currently $2,700 per person) that apply to the campaigns themselves. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., seized on one sentence in the newly minted Citizens United decision to sweep away all limits on super PAC expenditures and, notably, on their contributions as well. As a result, a single, stunningly rich family can — and did — contribute $15 million to a committee supporting Republican Ted Cruz for president, an amount that would be illegal a thousand times over if the family contributed to Cruz directly.

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Wisconsin ‘John Doe’

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Club for Growth renews complaints of GAB-IRS ties

Jason Stein and Patrick Marley

The Wisconsin Club for Growth, which was targeted in the now closed probe, contended in a court filing this week the state Government Accountability Board had handled its investigation improperly. The filing revealed the board’s director, Kevin Kennedy, had discussed the probe with Lois Lerner, the controversial former director of a division in the U.S. Internal Revenue Service that oversees tax-exempt organizations such as the club.

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The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.