Daily Media Links 3/31

March 31, 2020   •  By Tiffany Donnelly   •  
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New from the Institute for Free Speech

Senators Merkley and Udall Tout Legislation that Hands Power to the Politicians

By Alex Baiocco

Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM) describe H.R. 1, the so-called “For the People Act,” as “legislation to put power back in the hands of the people.” This is a chillingly Orwellian way to describe a bill that would radically expand the federal government’s power over Americans’ political speech.

The singular purpose of numerous provisions within H.R. 1 is to include more types of speech within the government’s regulatory purview. In fact, much of the bill is dedicated to defining new categories of speech that would trigger burdensome and invasive reporting requirements for groups speaking about policy issues – taxes, healthcare, the environment, immigration, you name it. The obvious effect of these provisions would be self-censorship.

When groups must choose between inviting legal scrutiny and not engaging in certain communications, many will choose the latter. Complying with complex regulations on speech requires groups to hire expensive attorneys. And when, as in H.R. 1, the line between an unregulated communication and a regulated communication is vague or indiscernible, even hiring attorneys may not eliminate the risk of facing penalties.

While Merkley and Udall claim to be taking on billionaires, big corporations, and “insidious forces,” low-budget and grassroots groups would bear the brunt of H.R. 1’s speech-chilling provisions. 

Supreme Court

Associated Press: Justices decline challenge to Seattle ‘democracy vouchers’

By Gene Johnson

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge to Seattle’s first-in-the-nation “democracy voucher” program for public financing of political campaigns.

The high court issued its denial Monday in a challenge brought by two local property owners who said the program forces them – through their tax dollars – to support candidates they don’t like, in violation of the First Amendment.

Seattle voters decided in 2015 to tax themselves $3 million a year; in exchange, each receives four $25 vouchers that they can donate to participating candidates in city elections. Supporters say it has boosted participation in city politics, especially among lower-income residents who previously were less likely to donate to campaigns.


Wall Street Journal: GOP-Tied Groups Challenge Shift of Bloomberg Cash to Democrats

By Tarini Parti

Two Republican-led groups have filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission against billionaire Michael Bloomberg, alleging the recent transfer of $18 million from his presidential campaign to the Democratic National Committee violates campaign finance laws.

Americans for Public Trust, a government oversight nonprofit, alleges in the complaint that Mr. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, “egregiously flouted the party contribution limits” because he had already made the maximum donation to the DNC allowed by an individual before transferring money from his campaign, which he self-funded. The group is calling on the FEC for “immediate investigation and enforcement action” against Mr. Bloomberg, his campaign committee, his campaign’s treasurer and the DNC.

“Because it was public that Mr. Bloomberg was self-funding his campaign, the DNC knowingly accepted a contribution made in the name of another by accepting the $18 million contribution from the Campaign Committee,” the complaint states…

The complaint from Americans for Public Trust comes after Great America PAC, a pro-Trump group, also called on the FEC to investigate the transfer. 

Campaign Legal Center: Close the Bloomberg Big Money Loophole

By Brendan Fischer

Despite laws capping contributions to the DNC at $35,500 per individual, Michael Bloomberg transferred $18 million to the Democratic Party in March. The $18 million transfer is permissible because the money formally came from Bloomberg’s campaign-which he entirely funded-rather than directly from his personal account.

Federal law allows candidates to transfer unlimited amounts to party committees like the DNC. Federal law also allows candidates to spend unlimited amounts of money supporting their own campaigns. But never before have those two provisions been used together in quite this way and to such a degree…

The Bloomberg loophole need not remain open. When the FEC’s quorum is restored, the agency should open a rulemaking to clarify that a candidate’s personal funds held in a campaign account are not subject to the unlimited party transfer provision. If the FEC won’t act, then Congress should.


Capital Research Center: Political and Charitable Contributions “Crowding Out” Each Other, Consumptively

By Michael E. Hartmann

Four scholars from around the world present “evidence that individuals see political donations and charitable donations as substitutes” in an interesting January National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. “In other words, we provide evidence that political and charitable giving crowd out each other,” according to the quartet. If that’s correct, the implications for nonprofitdom’s future could, and perhaps should, be great.

Maria Petrova, Ricardo Perez-Truglia, Andrei Simonov, and Pinar Yildirim use data from the American Red Cross and the U.S.’s Federal Election Commission to “show that foreign natural disasters can act as information shocks to the need for charitable giving and thus decrease political contributions, and that political advertising can act as information shocks to the need for political contributions and thus decrease charitable donations.”

Online Speech Platforms

Foreign Affairs: Coronavirus Fake News Isn’t Like Other Fake News

By Sarah Kreps and Brendan Nyhan

The current success of social media platforms in limiting harmful content about COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, may inspire a false hope that the same standards can or should be applied to political news…

The platforms’ approach to pandemic information has been aggressive, effective, and necessary-but it cannot and should not be applied to politics…

False speech about politics is a necessary byproduct of living in a free society (unless it runs afoul of carefully circumscribed laws against libel and slander). Identifying false claims about politics is a laborious affair that requires difficult judgments about the nature of truth. As a result, the social consensus in favor of reducing political misinformation on social media is more limited. 

New York Times: How Russia’s Troll Farm Is Changing Tactics Before the Fall Election

By Davey Alba

Ahead of November’s election, American intelligence officials and others are on high alert for mischief from Russia’s Internet Research Agency.

Remember it?

The Kremlin-backed group was identified by American authorities as having interfered in the 2016 election. At the time, Russians working for the group stole the identities of American citizens and spread incendiary messages on Facebook and other social media platforms to stoke discord on race, religion and other issues that were aimed at influencing voters.

To avoid detection, the group has since evolved its tactics. Here are five ways its methods have shifted.

Candidates & Campaigns 

New York Times: Trump Won the Internet. Democrats Are Scrambling to Take It Back

By Jim Rutenberg and Matthew Rosenberg

The Democrats emerged from 2016 with two distressing realizations: They had no effective answer to Mr. Trump’s overwhelming information war machine, and their big-data systems were suddenly anachronistic…

[I]n interviews, Democrats also argued that Mr. Obama had not adequately worked to rebuild the party for his successors. After 2012, he started his own competing political operation, Organizing for Action, and Democrats complained he was slow to share his valuable data and email lists…

But there was another reason, come 2016, that Mr. Trump and his party were reigning technologically supreme – their superior navigation of the major change that a series of court decisions brought about during the Obama presidency.

Those rulings had freed corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums on elections, as long as they did not coordinate with candidates or political parties, which were bound by strict donation limits to prevent undue influence.

Conservatives moved swiftly to capitalize on that change.

They placed a high priority on obtaining as much data about voters as possible – who they were and what motivated them.

Bloomberg: Wall Street Donors Sit Tight Just When Biden Needs Cash the Most

By Bill Allison, Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, and Tom Maloney

Big donors to U.S. presidential campaigns are feeling the economic pinch from the coronavirus pandemic and holding on to their money just when the candidates — especially Democratic front-runner Joe Biden — need it most.

With stocks falling, businesses shrinking and unemployment soaring, donors of all sizes are feeling the effects. Billionaires counted on to fuel super PAC spending have seen their net worth plummet by anywhere from 10% to as much as 75%…

Biden has relied heavily on in-person fundraising events and has yet to build the large base of donors who give smaller amounts of money online. Biden gets just 38% of his money from individuals who gave $200 or less, compared to 58% for Sanders and 53% for Trump, Federal Election Commission data shows…

Super PACs could step in where individual donors to campaigns could not. Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, says it’s on track to meet its $150 million fundraising goal before the Democratic convention scheduled for July, but some of those large donors have taken a massive hit to their net worth.

Roll Call: COVID-19 complication: PACs can’t deliver promised checks

By Kate Ackley and Bridget Bowman

Corporate PACs, often maligned on the campaign trail, have a new problem to confront: Getting checks to campaigns they’ve already pledged to support at events that happened before the coronavirus pandemic halted in-person fundraisers.

“They’re trying to find workarounds,” said Kristin Brackemyre, director of PAC and government relations for the Public Affairs Council.

The predicament for business political action committees affects just one source of funds for some candidate coffers, but it illustrates the difficulties campaigns face as a crucial March 31 fundraising deadline looms.

Many campaigns are sending out urgent appeals for online contributions and tout the deadline, because the fundraising disclosures that follow are often a benchmark for donors looking to put their money where it will have the most impact. A big first quarter number for a challenger can lead to more contributions as the year goes on because they are seen as serious contenders; conversely, an incumbent having a huge quarter could convince donors to support challengers in another district instead.

The problem is especially acute now because campaigns know that raising money is likely to get even tougher in the second quarter, as the economy slides and unemployment spikes.

The Hill: Biden’s rise in primary calms nerves on K Street

By Alex Gangitano

Lobbyists are breathing a collective sigh of relief with Vice President Joe Biden as the likely Democratic presidential nominee, seeing it as a blow to proposals on the left targeting K Street.

Biden’s rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), had pushed an ambitious agenda to rein in special interests and corporations…

Sanders’s lobbying proposals, including a ban on corporate funding for conventions and a lobbying ban on former members of Congress and senior staffers, had rattled many on K Street…

Many lobbyists downplayed Sanders’ proposals as unlikely to come to fruition.

“I never worried about Sanders living up to this anti-lobbyist point of view,” one lobbyist told The Hill. “Lobbying is a part of our democracy, it always has been, probably always will be.” …

Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin told The Hill, “In office, Biden will end frequently-exploited lobbying loopholes, push for legislation mandating that elected officials disclose all lobbyist meetings and communications, and he’ll introduce a constitutional amendment to entirely remove private dollars from federal elections.”

Biden’s proposals call for disclosing communications between lobbyists and elected officials and prohibiting foreign governments’ use of lobbyists, and his campaign has disavowed money from lobbyists, corporate PACs and super PACs.

The States

Jewish Insider: As New York closes in on budget negotiations, funders weary of new reporting proposal

By Ross Beroff 

As nonprofits struggle amid the economic impact of the current COVID-19 crisis, they may soon be facing an additional stumbling block, in the form of an increase in state-mandated donor transparency requirements…

Amid daily press briefings and constant calls to Washington, [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo is continuing to negotiate with the legislature to balance and approve the state budget before the April 1 deadline…

Included in the budget is a clause that will drastically increase transparency demands for donations to nonprofits. The proposed legislation attached to the budget focuses on restricted donations related to lobbying-related expenses, as well as general donations from major funders. This proposal, if approved in the final budget, would make public the names of anyone who donates more than $5,000 and the amount given. The clause would apply to organizations with more than $250,000 in gross revenue…

The proposed budget also includes a clause that would require additional reporting when a 501(c)(3) organization makes a contribution of $10,000 or more to a 501(c)(4) organization for lobbying purposes.

The two proposals are seen by many as another attempt by Cuomo to enact an ethics law that was introduced in 2016 but struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge in the Southern District of New York in September. The ruling in Citizens Union Of The City Of New York v. The Attorney General of the State of New York, noted that “there is no question that public disclosure of donor identities burdens the First Amendment rights to free speech and free association.”

Ballotpedia News: Arizona campaign finance initiative campaign suspends signature gathering

By Ryan Byrne

Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, co-chair of the campaign Outlaw Dirty Money, announced that the campaign was suspending signature gathering efforts for its ballot initiative due to the coronavirus pandemic. The campaign needs to gather at least 356,467 signatures by the July 2 deadline.

The ballot initiative would add language to the Arizona Constitution providing people with a right to know the identity of the original source of an aggregate contribution of $5,000 or more used for campaign media spending.

Goddard called on the Arizona State Legislature to allow for signatures to be gathered online. He noted that the legislature had authorized candidates to collect petitions online. Goddard stated, “We’ve got a situation here where they treat themselves royally with access to electronic signatures. But they don’t let anybody else have it. I think that’s fundamentally unfair and perhaps illegal.”

City & State: Pass campaign finance reform in the state budget

By Joanna Zdanys

Recent reports indicate that Gov. Andrew Cuomo might push for including the recommendations of the New York Public Campaign Financing Commission in this year’s budget. Although a recent state court decision out of Niagara County struck down the enabling legislation that created the commission, thereby nullifying its recommendations, the commission’s plan for reforming New York’s broken campaign finance system can and should still be enacted into law.

That reform, a small-donor public financing program, would give small contributions more weight by matching them at a multiple rate…

Small-donor public financing is an essential tool for building political power in low-income communities and communities of color that for too long have fought for a seat at the table.

Tiffany Donnelly

Tiffany Donnelly