Philadelphia Moves to End Illegal Coordination Between Campaigns and Wealthy Special Interests

City buildings along water
The city of Philadelphia. Photo by Olga Kaya

Every new election cycle brings a new round of record-breaking election spending that grabs headlines and threatens to drown out the voices of everyday people in our elections.

But recently, headlines have highlighted actions taken by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics to protect the voices of Philadelphians and update its campaign finance rules.

In response to the ever-increasing flood of election spending — and, specifically, the evolving tactics wealthy special interests use to evade campaign finance laws — the Board clarified and strengthened its coordination rules.

While updating regulations may seem routine, coordination rules have become a vital tool to protect the rights of everyday people to have a meaningful voice in campaigns for elected office.

Contribution limits at the federal, state, and local level — including in Philadelphia — prevent wealthy special interests from using their vast resources to directly bankroll a candidate’s campaign, which would create obvious risks for corruption.

Crucially, contribution limits also apply to spending that is coordinated between outside spenders and candidates, which is just as valuable to candidates as direct contributions.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited independent spending by corporations in Citizens United v. FEC and ultimately paved the way for the creation of super PACs, coordination rules have become especially critical to protecting the integrity of our campaign finance system.  

Because outside groups and super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections independently, rules ensuring that spending is, in fact, independent of candidates and political parties are essential to prevent the evisceration of contribution limits.  

Unsurprisingly, candidates and outside spenders have innovated shady tactics to circumvent coordination rules, enabling outside groups to spend their enormous sums with help or direction from a candidate’s campaign while dubiously claiming to be independent.  

As candidates and outside spenders have crafted schemes to evade contribution limits, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics (the Board) has responded by regularly updating its rules to prevent these abuses.

For example, in 2022, the Board established a rule regulating “redboxing,” a growing practice designed to facilitate illegal coordination between candidates and outside spenders.  

Last week, the Board published its updated campaign finance regulations, taking on other common strategies candidates and outside spenders use to evade commonsense coordination laws. For example, the Board clarified that its coordination rules apply regardless of whether a person has formally declared their candidacy.  

At the federal level, presidential candidates have routinely gamed the system to engage in coordinated activities with super PACs — from establishing and running their own super PAC before declaring their candidacy to collaborating on a super PAC’s election ads — in ways that would clearly be prohibited once they take the formal actions to declare their candidacy.

The Board’s updated rules respond to a Philadelphia candidate adopting a similar coordination playbook in the city’s 2023 mayoral elections.

Philadelphia’s updated rules also clarify that a candidate cannot evade contribution limits simply by outsourcing campaign operations to outside groups that are established, run, or financed by the candidate’s agents or officers.

These practices reveal a disturbing trend of candidates increasingly skirting coordination laws to rely on outside groups to carry out basic campaign functions while raising unlimited money from wealthy special interests.

Unchecked coordination between candidates and wealthy special interests only serves to drown out the voices of everyday people. But the Philadelphia Board of Ethics has shown that coordination laws can be strengthened to protect the ability of voters to meaningfully participate in the political process.

Policymakers and campaign finance agencies at the federal, state, and local levels should take a page from Philadelphia’s book to protect against illegal coordination.

Aaron is a Senior Legal Counsel on CLC's Campaign Finance team.