Coordination Laws

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Two men in suits shaking hands

For a democracy to be effective, candidates and elected officials have to answer to their constituents – not wealthy special interests.

Campaign contribution limits play an important role in protecting this; they reduce the undue influence of wealthy donors over politics, thereby guarding against political corruption and ensuring that our officeholders are accountable to all citizens.  

At the federal and state levels, contribution limits apply to anyone who either contributes directly to a federal candidate or political party or coordinates their political spending with a candidate or party. Because coordinated spending is just as valuable to candidates as direct contributions, coordination between outside spenders and their preferred candidates must be strictly policed to prevent big donors from indirectly bankrolling their preferred candidates while sidestepping contribution limits. Undetected coordination erodes the accountability to everyday voters that we need from our elected officials. 

Concerns over circumvention of contribution limits are especially acute with super PACs and outside groups that make independent expenditures. These entities are permitted to raise and spend unlimited amounts, so long as their election spending is not legally “coordinated” with a candidate or political party. In recent years, Super PACs and outside groups have continually pushed the legal boundaries between coordinated and independent campaign spending. For example, many single-candidate super PACs are run by the favored candidate’s former campaign staff or political allies with intimate knowledge of the candidate’s campaign strategy and needs.  

CLC President Trevor Potter, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart

illustrate how easy it can be to circumvent coordination rules without strong protections.

 

In this way, wealthy special interests are able to skirt contribution limits by claiming to spend independently of campaigns while secretly coordinating with the campaigns behind closed doors. Voters want real transparency about who is spending big money on elections, which leads to more government accountability, less influence for wealthy special interests and less political corruption. Laws and regulations can deliver transparency by clearly and comprehensively delineating the meaning of coordination with a candidate or a party. Effective anti-coordination measures should take a holistic approach to evaluating, considering a thorough range of coordinating conduct between candidates and outside spenders, as well as the content of a particular expenditure in defining coordination. Additionally, a coordination policy can permit the use of firewalls by a spending organization that, in certain circumstances, act as a “safe harbor” against a finding of coordination.  

Coordination Toggle

If a super PAC or outside group has certain contacts or connections with a candidate’s campaign or a political party, then its spending to support that candidate or party should be deemed coordinated and subject to contribution limits under the law.  

How does it work?  

An effective coordination policy should cover the most common activities that super PACs and outside groups use to collaborate with campaigns, including:  

  • If a candidate, a member of a candidate’s immediate family or a campaign or political party official has a role in establishing or managing the organization making the expenditure.  

  • If a candidate or political party official solicits money for the organization making the expenditure, or appears as a featured guest at the organization’s fundraising events.  

  • If the organization making the expenditure relies on nonpublic information about campaign strategy or needs provided by a candidate or political party.  

  • If the organization making the expenditure employs a former employee or agent of a candidate or political party, or uses a common vendor that also provided campaign services to the candidate or party. 

A strong coordination policy should also describe specific kinds of expenditures that, if made in collaboration with a candidate or political party, are sufficiently election-related to be covered as coordinated expenditures.  

How does it work?  

An effective definition of “coordination” should cover both public communications about a candidate or party, as well as certain expenditures for partisan activities, including:  

  • Public communications that expressly advocate for or against a candidate or political party (e.g., “Vote for John Smith,” “Defeat Bob Jones”).  

  • Public communications that refer to a clearly identified candidate or political party in the run-up to a primary or general election and are disseminated to voters in the relevant state or district. 

  • Public communications that republish, in whole or part, campaign materials originally prepared by a candidate or a political party.  

  • Expenditures for partisan voter activity, such as voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts, or phone banking, as well as other campaign-related expenses, including research, polling expenses, data analytics, and purchases of mailing lists.

When an organization making an expenditure that would otherwise qualify as coordinated has implemented a firewall policy to separate certain staff and to prevent the sharing of key information with the relevant candidate or political party, the expenditure should be excluded from the meaning of coordination. 

How does it work?  

If a spending organization implements a firewall policy, an expenditure involving former employees or common vendors that might otherwise be covered will not be deemed coordinated. To qualify for this exception, the firewall policy must, among other things: separate staff that provide services to the spending organization from staff servicing the candidate; prohibit the spending organization’s owners and managers from overseeing the work of staff separated by a firewall; and be formalized in writing and distributed to all relevant employees and consultants.  

Success story:  

Connecticut’s campaign finance law establishes a presumption that an expenditure is coordinated with a candidate or political party a variety of contexts, including when the spending organization has hired former employees or consultants of a candidate’s campaign, or when the organization has fundraised on behalf of a candidate or political party.

 

If you have questions about this policy proposal, we'd love to hear from you! Just e-mail us. 

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