Daily Media Links 11/22

November 22, 2019   •  By Tiffany Donnelly   •  
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The Courts

Providence Journal: Conservative groups sue R.I. Elections Board over disclosure rules

By Patrick Anderson

Rhode Island’s Gaspee Project and the Illinois Opportunity Project, a right-leaning nonprofit from Chicago, sued the Rhode Island Board of Elections Thursday in U.S. District Court, arguing that paid political messaging that’s not coordinated with a specific campaign is protected free speech that should not be subject to state financial disclosure laws.

Daniel R. Suhr, an attorney with the Liberty Justice Center, which is spearheading the case, said as long as political activity is not coordinated with a campaign and does not explicitly tell residents how to vote, it should not be subject to public disclosure laws meant to prevent corruption.

“Our goal is to create a safe space to talk about issues while at the same time respecting the important difference in direct campaign advocacy and the state and society’s interest in fighting corruption,” Suhr said.

Or, as the lawsuit puts it, “freedom of speech has included the right to engage in anonymous issue advocacy concerning important public issues. Similarly, the freedom of association includes the right of private individuals to band together for common purposes without government prying into those associations’ membership or donor lists.” …

“Across the country, individual and corporate donors and staff of political candidates and issue causes are being subject to harassment, career damage, and even death threats for engaging and expressing their views in the public square,” the suit says. “Plaintiffs reasonably fear that their members, supporters, and leaders may also encounter similar reprisals from certain activists if their association with Plaintiffs is made public.”…

Former Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last year, is local legal counsel on the case.

Disclosure 

Washington Post: Big campaign donors have exploited a loophole. Congress must change the law.

By Editorial Board

The Sixteen Thirty Fund is a social welfare group under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code and, as such, does not have to reveal its donors to the public, in contrast to political action committees that report to the Federal Election Commission, including the super PACs that are independent of candidates. The social welfare groups are permitted to engage in some politics; the logic was that groups such as renters’ associations or firefighters could be allowed to engage in politicking while not giving up their central social welfare purpose. But what’s happened in recent years is that this loophole has been hijacked by big campaign donors who want to have impact but hide their identity. According to the Politico report, a single donor to the Sixteen Thirty Fund gave $51.7 million, a second donor gave $26.7 million, and a third donated $10 million.

Who are these donors? The public will not find out. A good question is whether they are individual donors or whether this is part of a larger network of dark money sloshing about in politics. The fund distributed cash to causes such as television ads opposing the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, as well as ads that focused on issues such as health care and the economy. At least indirectly, the fund’s spending helped Democrats take back the House. The fund also poured money into other nonprofit groups active in state politics.

Pity the voters, bombarded with social media posts, news accounts and advertising from all kinds of faceless and unaccountable sources. It is time for Congress to change the law and force social welfare groups to identify their donors in full. Society will be better for it and voters less confused and misled.

Online Speech Platforms 

Ad Age: Google Takes A Match To Political Ad Targeting, Now Facebook Feels The Heat Too

By Garett Sloane

Google’s move to curb abuses in online political advertising has sparked a debate about one of ad land’s most-effective targeting tools, known as “customer match,” where marketers serve messages directly to voters based on their email contacts.

Google announced that it was eliminating the ability to use its customer-match tool, which is a favorite tactic of many campaigns. It’s such an effective technique that President Donald Trump’s digital ad team took to Twitter to criticize the proposed steps to curb the practice. “If Hillary [Clinton] would’ve won, these tools would’ve been celebrated,” said Gary Coby, Trump’s digital director, in a tweet on Thursday.

Trump’s camp was concerned this week that Facebook could follow suit by banning “custom audiences” in political advertising. Custom audiences and customer match are similar in that the advertiser brings e-mail lists to the platforms, and they can target ads to those e-mails if that person is logged into Facebook or Google.

Ellen Weintraub, chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, applauded Google for its action and pressured Facebook to follow. “This is a welcome move by Google that recognizes the problems that political-ad microtargeting has wrought on democracy,” Weintraub tweeted late Thursday. “Now it’s Facebook’s move.”

Trump’s team is not alone in its use of e-mails to target ads. It is a common approach of political advertisers of all persuasions. Campaigns have been able to conduct sophisticated messaging based on collecting the e-mail addresses of supporters and matching those to voter rolls, identifying likely and unlikely voters, and then using that data to turn out the vote.

IRS

Pelican Institute: Pelican Institute Comments On Privacy Rights, New IRS Rule

The right to support organizations that you believe in is a core American principle. The First Amendment supports our rights to associate and financially support groups and causes we believe in. But due to today’s political climate, many people are worried that supporting the causes they believe in could result in them facing harassment or intimidation either online or in the real world.

As a result, many people simply don’t support the causes they believe in.

But, this doesn’t have to be the case.

The IRS is considering a rule where it will no longer collect supporter information for certain types of non-profit groups. This data isn’t being used to enforce tax law but could be used to intimidate supporters, as seen with the IRS Tea Party scandal.

The Pelican Institute believes in the privacy of not only its supporters, but of supporters of all other non-profits.

As a result, the Pelican Institute submitted comments in support of this rule.

Lobbying

Roll Call: Uncertain times could bring new lobbying strategies

By Kate Ackley

The presidential election year will hit lobbyists with potential risks all around. Candidates up and down the ballot will press proposals to remake the influence industry and to overhaul the nation’s campaign finance system. More candidates will reject K Street and business donations. The approaching elections, along with an expected impeachment trial early on, will turn Capitol Hill into an even bigger political mess.

Still, lobbyists say they have no plans to zip up their campaign checkbooks, hide under their desks or decamp from the capital.

Instead, they’re brewing alternative strategies, workarounds that include deeper outreach to think tanks, academia and other institutions that can lend policy gravitas to shape major discussions over health care, immigration, trade, taxes and other matters that will feature prominently on the campaign trail and beyond…

“Third-party stakeholder engagement is really, really important,” Marie Sylla-Dixon, vice president of federal government and external affairs at T-Mobile, said during a CQ Roll Call/FiscalNote webinar that I moderated. “A lot of members of Congress – and also, even right now, a lot of the presidential candidates – when they’re looking at different policy agendas, they’re really borrowing ideas from a lot of these think tanks, for example, on key issues.”

“It’s still important to go up on the Hill and do that on-the-ground education, but it’s also important to make sure that you have key validators who are helping to tell the story,” Sylla-Dixon added.

Think tanks and other outside policy-focused organizations, as well as academics, offer an alternative voice and one that candidates, lawmakers and voters alike may be willing to hear rather than corporate interests.

The Media 

New Republic: The Media’s Irrational Obsession With Campaign War Chests

By Walter Shapiro

[W]ith the rise of cable news, campaign cash has played a smaller and even more ambiguous role. Donald Trump proved in 2016 that breaking political norms every night earned him more sustained TV coverage than any campaign ad could. The media saturation helped send a shell-shocked Jeb Bush (supposedly protected by his $118 million super PAC) and Hillary Clinton (who outspent Trump two-to-one) to political retirement.

Many political reporters seem determined not to learn the lessons of 2016. They treat money, particularly the quarterly filings to the Federal Election Commission, with a reverence worthy of Gordon Gekko. Panicked donors are a campaign trail staple, as in this Politico story headlined: “‘It’s Too Much’: Democrats Shudder at Trump’s Money Machine.” They are assuming the fetal position, supposedly, because the Trump campaign already has $158 million in the bank for his reelection drive.

Yeah, sure. Trump already ran his first TV ad (“He’s no Mr. Nice Guy”) during the World Series. But whose opinion will it change? Perhaps a survivalist who has been off the grid since the collapse of Lehman Brothers. But no flotilla of glossy “morning in America” ads will change the minds of most Americans.

Candidates and Campaigns 

Daily Wire: Kamala Harris Gets ‘Real’ About Why She’s Not A Frontrunner

By Molly Prince

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) suggested on Thursday morning that two of the main reasons she is not polling as a top-tier contender in the Democratic primary is because she has less name recognition than the frontrunners and is struggling to bring in enough money to promote her campaign, which she blamed on the need for campaign finance reform…

“The reality, you know – I’m just into real talk at that point – I mean, the reality is that the top of the, you know, the top of the field many have been on the stage for decades,” Harris responded. “They’re familiar, they’re known, and they have name I.D. for that reason. And so my challenge is to up my name I.D. and introduce myself to people.”

“You know, a large part of it is the fundraising piece. I need to raise the money to be on TV in Iowa, you know, as soon as possible. That’s just a crude fact of running for president,” she continued. “And until we have campaign finance reform, which will be one of my first areas of focus when elected, until that happens, that’s a part of the process.”

The States

Crain’s New York: Landlord-bashing anti-Semitic council candidate slapped with campaign finance violations

By Will Bredderman

A fringe candidate known for decrying “greedy Jewish landlords” got grabby with the city’s money, a probe by the Campaign Finance Board found.

Thomas Lopez-Pierre will have to repay $54,107 of the $99,180 in matching funds the CFB gave him for his failed 2017 bid to oust City Councilman Mark Levine of Manhattan-plus $6,182 in fines for assorted forms of malfeasance. The panel charged him with failing to account for more than $10,000 in transactions, failing to report more than $12,000 in contributions, exceeding the $100 limit on individual cash expenditures, using campaign funds for personal purposes and making campaign expenditures after the election was over.

Washington State Wire: The gray area around defining political advertisements in Washington State

By Michael Goldberg

At a Work Session meeting on Wednesday in Olympia, the Senate Committee on State Government, Tribal Relations, and Elections heard from the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) leadership on matters related to outside political spending in the 2019 election, enforcement of online political advertising regulations, and false political advertisements…

If you advocate for or against a campaign or ballot measure, that is clearly defined as an electioneering communication. But when you see an ad that says something like, ‘call your member and tell them how you feel’, is that political advertising?” said PDC Executive Director Peter Lavallee.

Advertisements that do meet the requirements for being classified “political” by the RCW are required to provide a copy of the advertisement, its sponsor identification, as well as cost and payment information. Digital advertisements must also include demographic information of the audiences targeted and reached and the total number of impressions generated by the advertisement.  

While Washington has some of the strictest campaign finance laws in the country, prompting Facebook and Google to ban political ads in the state, the enforcement mechanisms are still a work in progress. For example, the regulations do not penalize candidates who try to place banned ads, instead simply instructing platforms to be more transparent about where the ads are coming from and how they are funded. 

Even if they do not appear on social media platforms, carefully worded advertisements may still evade the PDC’s purview. 

Hasegawa continued,

“I’d like to see as broadest definition possible of what one might consider political advertising, because you one could paint broad brush like ‘vote against all socialists or whatever.’ I’m sure there would be people interested in researching how much money is going toward [that type of advertising]. I doubt you would see something that says, ‘vote for everyone who’s a capitalist.’ So [this question] is laying the foundation for a political analysis.”

Tiffany Donnelly

Tiffany Donnelly