Voters Need to Know What “Redboxing” Is and How It Undermines Democracy

Over the shoulder shot of a woman looking at a laptop screen which is open to a web browser showing a page with videos and images.
A woman views a website from a congressional candidate in Oregon. Photo by Casey Atkins/Campaign Legal Center

When you visit a federal candidate’s campaign website, you’ll probably find their biography, a story about why they're running, and their positions on important issues. But you also might encounter a bright red box containing the peculiarly worded headline: “Voters need to see, read, and see on the go…”

That headline might be followed by negative information about the candidate’s opponent, including the type of harshly critical statements that candidates often avoid making directly.

As you scroll down the page, you may find downloadable “B-roll” stock footage of the candidate greeting crowds, or stock images of them smiling, waving, or shaking hands.  

You might wonder why the candidate would have this on their campaign website.

What you’re seeing is “redboxing,” an illegal practice in which campaigns publish messaging and signal to supportive super PACs what material they should use in their ads.

Super PACs are permitted to raise and spend unlimited amounts on elections — including money from corporations and wealthy special interests — but only if they do so independently. They are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns on their messaging. Redboxing openly flouts this “coordination” ban.

Here’s how redboxing works. A campaign provides messaging on its website and uses widely understood signals (like a literal red box) and specific phrasing (like “voters need to know…”) to direct super PACs to use the campaign’s approved messaging in their ads.

Redboxing also commonly involves posting footage and photos of the candidate, as well as strategy tips about the race. A super PAC supporting the candidate then uses the messaging and material supplied by the campaign in its ads.

Redboxing has become more egregious over time, and the signals have become more sophisticated. (Here's a recent example.)

Today, redboxing may include specific words instructing a super PAC how to disseminate ads to maximize impact: “voters need to see” signals a message should be delivered via TV ads, “read” is asking for direct mail, and “see on the go” is a request for digital ads.

A campaign may use polling data to instruct an allied super PAC to target ads to a specific place and group — e.g., “Voters in St. Louis between the ages of 18 and 35 need to see and see on the go…” — while offering a different instruction for a different place and group — e.g., “Voters in Kansas City over the age of 65 need to read...”

So the red box on a campaign website is not intended for the general public, but instead for a very particular audience: super PACs looking for campaign guidance on how to most effectively help a candidate without getting in trouble with federal regulators.

Why do candidates and super PACs communicate this way?

Redboxing was developed to evade federal laws prohibiting campaigns from coordinating their messaging with super PACs and other outside groups that support them.

Federal campaign finance laws limit the amount that a contributor can give to a candidate’s campaign and prohibit candidates from taking corporate money.

But these rules don’t apply to super PACs: in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and court decisions interpreting it, super PACs and other independent groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts, including corporate and special interest money, as long as their spending is independent — that is, not coordinated — with the candidates they support.

The federal laws prohibiting super PACs from coordinating with campaigns are intended to prevent wealthy special interests from using their unlimited fundraising and spending to directly underwrite a campaign’s expenses — a practice that would raise serious corruption concerns.

So how do campaigns and super PACs coordinate without facing consequences? As the practice of redboxing demonstrates, the coordination rules are like Swiss cheese: they’re full of holes.

For starters, the federal coordination regulations are woefully out of date and fail to account for the massive election spending by super PACs and other outside groups since Citizens United was decided.

And the existing coordination rules are virtually never enforced. The FEC, the agency charged with enforcing them, is mired in dysfunction, and typically deadlocks when confronted with allegations of coordination.

Worse, in a recent statement on the subject, the FEC appeared to endorse the idea that candidates can legally communicate instructions to super PACs via public-facing social media platforms like Twitter. That interpretation is wildly at odds with any commonsense view of what “coordination” means.

Because the coordination rules are a toothless tiger, super PACs and candidates continue to engage in increasingly brazen coordination practices, like redboxing, which openly games the electoral system.

When candidates are allowed to direct the activities of allied super PACs via information and signals on a website, shielded from legal scrutiny by a thin veneer of plausible deniability, the risk of corruption is clear.

Super PAC coordination facilitates a corrupt "pay-to-play" political culture, where super PAC donors and operatives can trade dollars for favors and access. This fundamentally undermines voters’ confidence that the political system will respond to their concerns and protect their interests.

That’s the steep cost of the inept and underenforced coordination rules currently in place and why the legal reforms and robust enforcement that Campaign Legal Center fights for are so urgently needed.

It’s long past time for Congress and the FEC to end redboxing and other forms of illegal coordination to protect the integrity of elections in our democracy. 

Saurav is the Director, Federal Campaign Finance Reform at CLC.
What Is Illegal Coordination, and How Is It Hurting Our Democracy?