Checks: Political Money & Democracy

FEC Republicans Defend Employer Political Coercion Vote

Amid a burst of anger from Washington watchdogs, the Federal Election Commission’s three Republican commissioners have defended their recent decision to vote against investigating coal company Murray Energy’s alleged political coercion of salaried employees. Company executives had been accused of pressuring workers to contribute money to Murray Energy’s political action committee.

But the Republican commissioners staunchly asserted employers’ rights to engage in politics at the workplace. In a statement released Friday, FEC Chairman Matthew Peterson and fellow GOP Commissioners Lee Goodman and Caroline Hunter wrote: “Because we are addressing the fundamental First Amendment rights of persons to engage in political speech, including asking one another to support or oppose one candidate or another, the proposal to punish people based upon subjective feelings, rather than objective, discernible actions, fails to give clear notice of the law and appears calculated to chill virtually all solicitations in the workplace.”

In a 2012 article in The New Republic, Murray Energy employees who declined to identify themselves alleged that their year-end bonuses had been linked to their levels of political giving. The article led FEC investigators to look into the case, and commission staff members recommended to the commission that it find that the company had violated federal election law by “coercing Murray Energy employees to make contributions to federal candidates and participate in fundraising activities supporting federal candidates.”

The Republican commissioners cast doubt on the sources in the article, calling their comments “unsworn, anonymous, hearsay statements,” and said there was not enough “persuasive evidence” to warrant action. Additionally, the commissioners said that the company’s alleged contribution requests “took place six to nine years ago, outside of the statute of limitations.”

The GOP commissioners further argued that while Murray Energy’s solicitation to employees illustrated the election’s importance to the coal industry, and to the jobs it creates, the company didn’t threaten reprisal if employees didn’t contribute.

“Soliciting another person to give money to a candidate or political committee may naturally be uncomfortable to the solicited individual,” the Republicans stated. “That is no less true in the context of a supervisor-subordinate relationship. But a solicitation is at its core a protected First Amendment activity.”

The FEC’s three Democratic commissioners had voted in favor of action, declaring last month: “This case of political coercion in the workplace reverberates beyond the realm of U.S. elections. It goes to the very core of the relationship between employer and employee. Every citizen should feel free to give—or not to give—to the candidates and political causes of their choice, inspired by their own convictions, and free from outside pressure or coercion.”

The deadlocked vote, which has become the FEC’s default mode, has aroused concern among watchdogs who warn that the commission’s failure to act sends a signal to employers that they are now free to more aggressively solicit contributions from employees. 

Clinton, Senate Democrats Plan Broad Democracy Reforms

(Photo: AP/Dennis Van Tine)

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s campaign is reportedly planning to roll out a sweeping platform of democracy reforms that builds on the campaign-finance overhaul she unveiled in September, say progressive advocates.

Democracy advocates have been urging Clinton to more forcefully articulate her reform agenda on the campaign trail. Throughout the primary, Clinton has faced consistent criticism from Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders for her Wall Street ties. Clinton’s plans to broaden her reform agenda coincide with discussion among Senate Democrats of a democracy package that would encompass both campaign-finance and voting-rights changes.

Amid polls showing unprecedented voter anger at the influence of political money, advocates say Democrats now see reform as a shrewd electoral strategy. “I think [leading Democratic Senator] Schumer and Hillary are both looking at 2006 and seeing [2016] as a potential repeat,” says Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for reform advocacy group Public Citizen, referring to the election year when Democrats ran on ethics and lobbying reform. 

“I suspect this is going to become a very key issue affecting vote choice,” Holman adds. “I believe this is going to be a very wise strategic decision.”

The details of plans under discussion by the Clinton camp and Senate Democrats are not yet clear. And while they will be distinct from each other, both are likely to include increased campaign disclosure, an overhaul of the Federal Election Commission, stronger revolving door rules, and voting-rights protections.

“Her previous stance has been bits and pieces,” says Holman. “Here, she’s going to put it all together to clarify what her campaign is all about.”

Holman is among the progressive advocates who have recently been in discussions with the Clinton campaign about her reform agenda’s policy details. Holman predicts that Clinton could unveil a comprehensive platform within a couple weeks.

The campaign has indicated it will make a pivot some time before the Democratic National Convention at the end of July, concurs Scott Blaine Swenson, head of communications for Common Cause. Process of elimination, Swenson says, suggests that it will be soon.

“We’re hopeful and continue to believe that the Clinton campaign is going to make that pivot [toward promoting solutions],” Swenson says.

A Clinton spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are working on a broad package of reform bills as part of their plan to win back control of the chamber. The idea is for the Democratic ticket to present a unified front on the issue in a bid to tap into voter anger over the influence of big money. Democrats have set out to contrast themselves with Republicans, who have pushed aggressively for both political money deregulation and voter-ID laws that critics say obstruct voter access.

The Clinton campaign may try to line up its platform release to coincide with the Senate Democrats’ plan, Holman says. Advocates of campaign-finance changes say it won’t be a moment too soon.

“Clinton shouldn't wait to talk about her democracy reform plan, and we'd encourage her to start campaigning on it today,” says Adam Smith, communications director for campaign-finance reform group Every Voice.

Clinton’s initial reform platform included a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, legislation to create a small-donor matching campaign-finance system, and executive orders that would help shine a light on dark money. Campaign-finance reform advocates have expressed disappointment that she has thus far declined to make the policies a central part of her campaign message.

As Clinton closes in on capturing the Democratic nomination, some argue she could extend an olive branch to Bernie Sanders’s supporters by promoting a campaign-finance, ethics, and voting-rights reform message.

A Clinton reform platform could also arguably be an effective foil to Donald Trump, who lambasts the influence of big donors and lobbyists but has failed to prescribe any policy fixes apart from being a self-funding billionaire.

While neither Senate Democrats’ nor the Clinton camp’s plans have been finalized, both are expected to include elements of legislation Democrats have introduced in past years.

These include a New Mexico Senator Tom Udall’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and a bill that would significantly revamp the Federal Election Commission, which has fallen victim to political gridlock. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, told National Journal that she expects the package to include a measure she introduced last year that would help slow the revolving door between the federal government and Wall Street. Clinton came out in support of Baldwin’s bill in August 2015. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s DISCLOSE Act, which would increase disclosure of donors to dark-money groups, is also reportedly in the mix. Legislation that would restore voting rights is likely to be a part of both platforms, too.

The big question is whether Clinton—who has drawn fire for her reliance on big donors and her tendency to push the boundaries of election law—would actually follow through with a sweeping reform agenda once elected. President Barack Obama, for one, promised to change how business is done in Washington but will leave office without much of a reform legacy.

“That’s an image problem that she’s going to have to overcome” admits Holman. “She has not yet succeeded at overcoming that. I believe that platform is designed to overcome that disconnect. It is in my opinion that she’s quite likely going to succeed.”


‘Soft Money’ Is Back, and Republicans Want to Make It Official

(Photo: AP/ J. Scott Applewhite)

In their ongoing crusade to roll back campaign-finance regulations, Republican Party leaders have mounted a legal attack on the bipartisan “soft money” ban enacted in 2002. If they succeed, campaign-finance watchdogs warn, American politics will revert to the unsavory practices of the 1990s when wealthy donors, corporations, and unions directed unlimited contributions to party coffers, often in exchange for access and influence.

Soft money is already making its way back into the system, given the big donations flowing to unrestricted super PACs and to special, high-dollar political party accounts. As the Prospect’s Eliza Newlin Carney has noted, the Supreme Court, in its 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC ruling, did away with aggregate limits on what donors may contribute to candidates and parties each year. Then the Senate added a rider to the 2014 spending bill that dramatically increased the limits that individuals may give to special party accounts that pay for conventions, buildings, and recounts.

Now Republicans have set out to finish the job by asking the courts to overturn the 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld the 2002 soft-money ban, officially the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and better known as the McCain-Feingold law for its chief Senate authors. Last year, the Republican Party of Louisiana lodged a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission, arguing that the part of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law that banned “soft money” has been rendered unconstitutional by the Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling, which lifted all limits on independent political spending.

The McCain-Feingold law requires state party committees to adhere to federal contribution limits when engaging in what the law terms “federal election activity,” which includes voter identification, registration, and get-out-the-vote efforts in the runup to federal elections, as well as any activities that “promote, attack, support, or oppose” a federal candidate.

The Republican Party of Louisiana argues that the state GOP should be free to pay for such activities through an “independent communications-only account” that doesn’t adhere to federal contribution limits.

The case is being led by conservative campaign-finance lawyer Jim Bopp, who over the years has gained notoriety for his multiple attacks on federal campaign-finance laws—most notably the Citizens United case that opened the doors to corporations and unions to independently spend unlimited amounts of money on politics.

“Bopp is tenacious,” says Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “The reality is that he has been, for 30 years or so, banging his head against the door, trying to break it down.”

When the court’s make-up changed with the departure of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006, Noble says, the Court majority became more aligned with Bopp’s views. Still, Bopp’s prior attempts to roll back the soft-money ban were stopped by lower courts that ruled the Supreme Court had already sufficiently weighed in on the issue.

But Bopp now argues that since the Supreme Court’s McConnell v. FEC ruling to uphold the soft money ban in 2003, the Court’s campaign-finance jurisprudence has changed enough—in both Citizens United and McCutcheon—to warrant reconsideration. In November, a D.C. district judge agreed, and granted Bopp’s application to bring the case before a special three-judge panel.

Though experts say it’s unlikely the panel will overturn the ban, the lower court’s decision to take up the case remains a major strategic win for Bopp. As election law expert Richard L. Hasen wrote in The Atlantic, “thanks to a quirk in the McCain-Feingold law, any appeal in the case would go directly to the Supreme Court. The appeals provision makes it very likely the Court will take the case, because unlike a usual decision not to hear a case, rejection of an appeal would indicate the Supreme Court’s belief that the lower court reached the right result.”

As the case makes its way toward a likely Supreme Court showdown, campaign-finance reform advocates are uncertain how the Court’s current eight-member divide might affect the outcome. If an evenly divided Court did rule in favor of Bopp and the Louisiana GOP, Noble says it would eviscerate the soft-money ban for state committees. He warns that with the higher limits that now apply to joint-fundraising committees, soft money raised at the state level would inevitably seep into the federal party apparatuses.

“There’s no question that what this would do is allow soft money to flood into federal elections,” Noble says. “It would really have a major effect.”

Reform advocates say this case raises the stakes in their campaign to convince the Senate to confirm President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Garland is regarded as a reliable liberal vote on election regulation matters, who could help shift the Court back toward campaign-finance curbs.


FEC Deadlocks Over Employer Political Coercion

Murray Energy Corporation CEO Robert Murray (Photo: AP/Rick Bowmer)


Last week, the Federal Election Commission deadlocked over whether to investigate allegations that coal baron Robert Murray coerced employees at his company, Murray Energy Corporation, into making campaign contributions. It’s a move that watchdogs warn will give the green light to workplace political coercion, which experts say is on the rise.

The case stems from a complaint filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleging that Murray Energy coerced its salaried employees to contribute to the company’s PAC. Sources within the company had alleged that their year-end bonuses depended on their levels of political giving.

FEC staff had advised the commission that there was a strong case for enforcement, based on evidence that included internal company documents reportedly showing that the company told managers, “We have been insulted by every salaried employee who does not support our efforts.” Staff members recommended that the commissioners find that Murray and his company’s PAC had violated federal election law by "coercing Murray Energy employees to make contributions to federal candidates and participate in fundraising activities supporting federal candidates."

When the commission finally voted on whether to take action last week, the FEC split along party lines, with the three Democratic commissioners voting in favor of investigation, and the three Republican commissioners voting against action. FEC rules bar the agency from taking action unless a majority of commissioners agree. It’s just the latest in a long list of FEC disputes that have ended in stalemates and inaction—involving everything from complaints over super PAC coordination with campaigns to nonprofits’ political activity, straw donations to LLCs, and end-runs around contribution limits.

“This case of political coercion in the workplace reverberates beyond the realm of U.S. elections," the three Democratic commissioners declared in a statement. “It goes to the very core of the relationship between employer and employee. Every citizen should feel free to give—or not to give—to the candidates and political causes of their choice, inspired by their own convictions, and free from outside pressure or coercion.”

The three Republican commissioners didn’t comment on the case. Election law observers called the stalemate a troubling sign that is eerily similar to the FEC’s past failure to issue clear guidance on the proper use of LLCs for political purposes.

“With the dismissal of the Complaint and nothing more heard from the agency,” wrote Democratic election lawyer Bob Bauer, former Obama White House counsel, “the regulated community has a fresh signal of either Commission paralysis on an issue of central importance, or of ominous possibilities now available to employers in soliciting political contributions from their eligible managerial ranks.”

It’s not the first time Murray has been accused of pushing the boundaries of election laws barring employers from coercing workers to follow their political agendas. Murray is an ardent opponent of President Obama, whom he accuses of waging a “war on coal,” and Murray and his company contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In 2012, an Ohio grassroots group filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that Murray had forced his company’s miners and their families to attend a Romney rally. Last year the commission dropped its investigation into that complaint.

The FEC’s latest stalemate over Murray comes at a time when political coercion by employers appears to be on the rise. As political scientist Alex Hertel-Fernandez wrote in the Prospect last year, as many as one in four employees have been contacted by their managers about voting, political candidates, or public policies and political issues.

The Supreme Court’s 2011 Citizens United decision not only cleared the way for corporations to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns from their own treasuries; it also emboldened managers to require employees to attend meetings about politics, or even specific candidates, a study by Hertel-Fernandez concluded. On top of that, there are no federal labor protections for employees who are fired or punished for refusing to participate in an employer’s political agenda. As Hertel-Fernandez wrote, technology has also helped corporations amplify their political voice: “A company might now launch a mobilization effort with a series of emails to workers, then call virtual town-hall video forums, and finally ask workers to visit a website to send employer-written messages to their elected officials.”

Even if the FEC continues to punt on coercion enforcement and not clarify the rules with future guidance, there are other steps reform advocates can take. As Hertel-Fernandez has noted, Congress currently prohibits PACs from collecting anything of value using “physical force, job discrimination, financial reprisals, or the threat of force, job discrimination, or financial reprisal … or as a condition of employment.” By simply altering the statute’s language to include corporations, Congress could legally protect employees from political coercion.

States could also follow the leads of Oregon and New Jersey, which have recently passed laws that prohibit employers from “discharging, disciplining, or penalizing employees who decline to participate in employer-sponsored activities or communications about religious or political issues.”

Hertel-Fernandez links the rise of employers’ political coercion to workers’ collective loss of power and voice on the job, and predicts that this will make the issue a growing priority for progressive organizers. “Resistance to political coercion is a concern common to the civil-rights and labor traditions,” he writes. “Efforts to curb employer political intimidation could remind Americans that the quality of democracy in the workplace has direct bearing on the quality of democracy at the ballot box.” 

The Emerging Wealthy White Male Donor Class: A Chicago Case Study

(Photo: AP/M. Spencer Green)

Riding on the coattails of the nation’s bursting wealth gap is another crisis of inequality—political inequality, campaign-finance watchdogs warn.

Fueled by unprecedented levels of wealth, rich white men, in particular, have formed an elite political donor class that has gained an outsized influence over policy, reform advocates say. Meanwhile, people of color and women who are less well to do have become disenfranchised from a political process that increasingly kowtows to big donors.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this political power gap starker than in the city of Chicago. A new report from Demos looks at the racial inequality in campaign financing for the 2015 mayoral race between beleaguered incumbent Rahm Emanuel and progressive insurgent Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and details the devastating results for Chicagoans.

Both candidates leaned heavily on big donors, raising more than 92 percent of their campaign funds from contributors who gave more than $1,000 apiece, the report finds. However, Emanuel’s re-election campaign relied far more on a donor base that doesn’t reflect the city’s diversity—wealthy whites who lived in the city’s most affluent areas or didn’t even live in the city. 

(Source: Demos)

While more than 60 percent of Chicagoans are people of color, only 6 percent of Emanuel’s donors were. And while just 15 percent of residents make more than $100,000 a year, 88 percent of Emanuel’s donors earned more than that.  

(Source: Demos)

That base served Emanuel well as his campaign raised nearly $25 million to Garcia’s $7 million, ultimately securing his seat in what became one of the most expensive mayoral races in U.S. history.

Chicago’s skewed donor class mirrors national trends. The country’s wealthiest .01 percent of donors now contribute more than 40 percent of all money to political campaigns. As of this past August, half of the $74 million in large individual donations to ten presidential candidates have come from just 1 percent of U.S. zip codes, according to research by the campaign-finance advocacy group Every Voice. Donors living in the affluent zip codes bordering New York City’s Central Park had given more money than donors from all the 1,200 majority-black zip codes combined.

These wealthy donors have distinctly different policy views than less wealthy non-donors. As the Demos report notes, only one-third of non-donors living in Chicago supported the 2010 Bowles-Simpson austerity measure to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense spending. But nearly two-thirds of Chicago political donors supported the plan.

Furthermore, wealthy Chicagoans are far less likely to believe that the government should play a role in guaranteeing strong public education systems, college aid, living wages, and unemployment insurance. For example, only 35 percent of wealthy Chicago residents think that the federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children can attend good public schools, compared with 87 percent of the Chicago general public who support that idea.

“The rich are far more supportive of austerity policies,” Sean McElwee, Demos policy analyst and author of the report, tells the Prospect.

“The current path Chicago is following,” McElwee writes, “with cuts to mental health services, infrastructure and public schools, is responsive to the preferences of the donor class, not average Chicagoans.” During Emanuel’s tenure, the city has closed 49 schools—largely in black neighborhoods—and closed half of the mental health clinics in Chicago. Those two prominent policy decisions, which were met with vehement public protest, point to wealthy donors’ outsized influence over the city’s policies.

“I find it difficult to imagine Emanuel making those budget decisions with a donor class that is 94 percent black,” McElwee says.  

Though it’s hard to trace the exact degree of influence enjoyed by Chicago’s donor class, anecdotal evidence highlights close relationships between big donors and Emanuel. For instance, mega-donor businessman Michael Sacks reportedly talks with Emanuel daily, and there are reportedly 1,500 emails between the two men.

So what’s the solution to combating the influence of wealthy donors who push agendas that go against the public will?

Public financing of campaigns, says McElwee. Such a system, which can give candidates access to public funds or match small donations, could boost the voices of smaller donors, who are much likelier to be more diverse and more representative of their communities. New York City has become the standard-bearer for public financing of elections, and evidence has shown that a more diverse population of residents has contributed money and helped elect more diverse candidates to office under the city’s public funding regime.

These types of campaign-finance reforms have gained more and more traction at the state and local levels as voter outrage over the influence of big money has continued to mount. Whether Chicago’s political leaders, who remain comfortably funded by big money, would take up such reforms remains to be seen. 

Charles Koch Bemoans Money in Politics But Lobbies Against Reform

(AP/ Bo Rader)

The latest front in the Koch brothers’ perpetual public relations campaign (which recently included a feeble admission that climate change is real) found Charles Koch sitting down with ABC News for an exclusive interview. The conversation with Jonathan Karl that aired last Sunday cast Koch in the unlikely role of benevolent billionaire. The man who built an empire of influence by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into American politics says he and his brother David want to clean up the political realm.

“The only way to get the money out is to get all the goodies that the government's giving to special interests out, and that's what we're trying to do,” Koch said. Yet Koch neglected to mention that over the past few years his vast political network, including his company, Koch Industries, has opposed a slew of campaign-finance reform bills in Congress.

“[Koch] is speaking from both sides of his mouth on this,” says Common Cause legal director Stephen Spaulding, who has supported a number of the failed reform proposals. “On the one hand, they’re talking about the influence that money can bring to political process,” says Spaulding. “Yet they’re lobbying against these common-sense bills that would give actually allow voters to see if politicians are acting in their best interest or in their donors’ best interests.”

Several of the reforms that the Kochs have lobbied against would have required additional disclosures of political contributions. Citizens United cleared the way for unlimited outside spending on elections. But under federal regulations, all contributions must be publicly disclosed. However, tax-exempt nonprofits that engage in political activity aren’t required to disclose their donors. Those organizations have provided billionaires like the Koch brothers with a loophole that they have exploited.

Since 2010, Democrats on Capitol Hill have backed the Disclose Act, which would close that loophole. The bill would have required all groups that make more than $10,000 in independent campaign expenditures to disclose all contributors of at, or above, that same threshhold. The bill died in the House and Senate on more than one occasion after aggressive lobbying by the Kochs and several of their allies.

Lobbying disclosure reports show that Koch Industries worked actively to thwart the Disclose Act, characterizing it as “legislation to curtail the ability of citizens to discuss and criticize incumbent politicians in periods close to elections for federal office.” Koch Industries has also opposed other Democratic disclosure bills as well as a 2014 joint resolution that backed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

The company has also lobbied for Republican proposals such as the Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act that would limit the agency’s ability to establish so-called “bright lines” between political and educational activity—something that reformers say is critical to reining in nonprofit entities like the ones funded by the Koch brothers that engage in political activities. That bill failed to gain traction, but the proposal reemerged earlier this year as a budget rider that blocks the IRS from writing new regulations that would define political activity.

The Koch brothers’ anti-disclosure lobbying should come as no surprise, given that they have built a political machine that runs largely on a network of political non-profits that funnel undisclosed contributions from big donors. Says Spaulding: “It goes without saying that people listen when they speak.”


Watchdogs Sue Over FEC Inaction

(Photo: AP/CQ Roll Call/Tom Williams)


Two watchdog groups have sued the Federal Election Commission for dismissing a string of complaints they lodged alleging that large donors used limited liability corporations to shield their identities—a violation of election laws that prohibit “straw” donations.

The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 argue in their lawsuit that the agency’s dismissal of their complaints has given donors the green light to violate disclosure laws without punishment. The FEC’s inaction signals further dysfunction in the agency charged with enforcing such violations, those filing the suit allege.

“This clearly is an agency out of control,” said Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, in a statement. “The agency is now sanctioning the intentional undermining of the integrity of campaign-finance disclosure. Each time the commission fails to pursue a serious violation of the law, it weakens our democracy and the ability of Americans to know who is truly influencing our elections. It also sends a loud and clear message that those who violate campaign-finance laws will face no penalties.”

The lawsuit comes amid growing concern over the flow of major contributions from shadowy limited liability corporations, or LLCs, to super PACs in both the presidential elections and down-ballot races. As the Center for Responsive Politics has reported, super PACs are more reliant than ever on large contributions from LLCs.

In March, the agency’s commissioners deadlocked over whether to investigate a handful of cases, a move that campaign-finance watchdogs say gave donors the go-ahead to continue using LLCs to remain anonymous. Some of the complaints lodged by the two groups reached as far back as 2011, including a complaint over three $1 million contributions given to Mitt Romney’s presidential super PAC Restore Our Future through non-disclosing LLCs. The man who funneled the money through the LLC even came forward and admitted that he had done so, saying he had thought it was legal.

Then in April, the Republican members of the commission released a statement explaining that they had voted to dismiss the complaints because they didn’t believe the agency had given donors proper notice as to how the agency would enforce contributions through LLCs. Watchdogs complained that under that reasoning, any LLC contribution made prior to the commission’s April statement would be immune from prosecution under the “straw donor” ban.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman said future violations will be enforced. “Now everyone should be on notice,” he said. “If you funnel money through an LLC entity for the purpose of making a political contribution and avoiding disclosure of yourself, that is an abuse of the LLC vehicle.”

However, it remains to be seen whether the commission takes up action on a slew of still-pending LLC complaints.

The two watchdog groups’ lawsuit alleges that the FEC’s dismissal of the complaints is “arbitrary and capricious,” and the commission’s retroactive immunization of previous violations sets a precedent for future inaction on enforcement matters. Further, the groups allege that the FEC has given big donors an easy way to get around disclosure laws, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld despite legalizing unlimited outside spending.

“LLCs are growing vehicles for laundering dark money contributions into federal elections,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, in a statement. “Anonymous donors are giving contributions to super PACs through LLCs, and only the LLCs, not the actual donors, are being disclosed to the public by the super PACs. Our FEC complaints and lawsuit are designed to bring an end to these ‘secret money’ schemes before they get completely out of hand and to obtain enforcement of the law in cases that we believe involve clear violations.”

Activists Swarm Capitol for Democracy Protests

(Photo: CQ Roll Call via AP Images)


On Sunday, more than a thousand people gathered on Capitol Hill for a “Democracy Awakening” rally to demand that Congress move to protect voting rights, limit political spending, and create a public financing system for political campaigns. Activists also want the Senate to take up President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Protesters held signs saying, “Money Talks, We’re Silenced,” and “Let My People Vote!” amid a crowd that displayed some flamboyant props and costumes, including a giant dummy of a corporate lobbyist holding bags of money, an “Uncle Sam” walking around on stilts with corporate logos plastered on his coat, and a man donned in a full suit patterned with hundred-dollar bills.

“Fundamental reform to expand and deepen our democracy, we know from America’s history, follows from one thing and one thing only: mass movements,” Robert Weissman, president of government watchdog group Public Citizen and organizer of the Democracy Awakening, told the crowd. “With our democracy in crisis, now is the time for Americans to mobilize to ensure the right to vote and to get Big Money out of politics. Democracy Awakening is the start of something, not the end, as the democracy movement enters a new phase of intensity, mobilization, aggressive activism, and disruption of business as usual.”

It was the second act of a two-part civic action that began with "Democracy Spring," a Philadelphia-to-D.C. march and sit-in from April 2-16, and a series of teach-ins, rallies, and demonstrations around the Capitol dubbed "Demoracy Awakening" that began Saturday and that were scheduled to conclude Monday. Organizers say what’s unique about the protests is that they have brought together a broad-based coalition—environmental groups, labor unions, civil rights groups, and good-government advocates—around the issue of money in politics. Such coordination, organizers say, signals the beginnings of a mass movement centered on restoring democracy.

Sunday’s events are part of a weeklong series of protests at the Capitol, which has been abuzz with activists agitating to get big money out of the political process. Since last Monday, more than 1,000 activists have been arrested outside the U.S. Capitol in collective acts of civil disobedience. With hundreds of demonstrators showing up each day, it’s been billed as the largest demonstration against money in politics in the country’s history.

The days of direct action are set to culminate Monday as hundreds of activists risk arrest one last time on the steps of the Capitol. Among those activists are several progressive movement leaders, including Reverend William Barber II, the architect of North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” protesting state Republicans’ attacks on civil rights, AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre, and United Farm Workers co-founder Delores Huerta.

The protests and arrests thrust the sometimes-sleepy issue of money in politics into prime time, catalyzed by presidential elections that are on pace to reach record levels of outside spending from super PACs and dark-money groups and by voters who are angrier than ever about the influence of special interests in politics.

New Yorkers Clamor to Vote in Primaries

Remember when Ben Carson was the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary? Or when Bernie Sanders consistently failed to poll above 30 percent against Hillary Clinton? Or when Nate Silver assured us that Trump’s collapse was inevitable?  

All this described the state of the presidential race about six months ago—around the same time that voters in New York faced an October 9 deadline to declare their party affiliations, a requirement for anyone intending to participate in the state’s closed primaries on April 19.

A lot has happened since that deadline last year, including the October resignation of then–House Speaker John Boehner, three major terrorist attacks in Europe and in the United States, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Unchanged though, remains the fact that next week’s New York primaries will be closed, meaning that only registered Democrats and Republicans may vote in their respective parties’ contests. This means that the 3 million or so voters registered outside the two major parties will be effectively disenfranchised from Tuesday’s elections. Among them are some surprisingly influential figures, as was widely reported last week, including Trump’s children and even his lawyer. But while the world’s tiniest violin may be playing for the Trump family, a crescendo of complaints is mounting from the many voters who now realize that they, too, will be locked out of the voting booths.

The state’s board of elections has reported a flood of calls by voters confused and outraged at the rules—“pissed off,” as one election official put it—about their registration status. And Ivanka Trump has become a voting-rights advocate overnight, slamming New York’s registration rules as “onerous” at a Republican town hall earlier this week. Meanwhile, a number of democracy groups have called for New York to open its primaries, holding a small rally in front of New York City Hall on Thursday. 

First-time voters have a bigger cushion: They had until March 25 to register and declare their party affiliations. But anyone banking on same-day registration, available in 11 other states, will be out of luck.

The standard defense of closed primaries is that they fend off the political dirty trick known as “party crashing”—the practice of voters registered with one party voting in the other party’s primary as a backdoor way to elevate a candidate perceived as unelectable. But with 5.2 million and 2.5 million voters registered with the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, that kind of manipulation would only work if thousands of voters conspired to “crash the party” in advance. Besides, GOP enthusiasm for the radioactive Trump makes party crashing look redundant this time.

The paradox of New York’s strict primary rules is that the state also boasts one of the nation’s most liberal general election ballot systems. Through a little-known practice called “fusion” voting, New York allows multiple parties to endorse the same candidate and list them on the ballot multiple times. Also known as cross-nominating, fusion voting encourages participation by voters registered with minor parties. Once ubiquitous in the 19th century, when third parties flourished, the practice fell out of favor as larger parties attempted to snuff out insurgent candidates who threatened their stature. Today, only seven states, including New York, allow fusion voting.

Why, then, are the state’s primary rules so strict? The answer, say election experts, is that both fusion voting and closed primaries tend to protect minor parties. In New York, groups like the Working Families Party, the Conservative Party of New York State, and the Green Party enjoy much greater influence there than in other states. Those three parties boast more than 215,000 active registrants between them. The Working Families Party, a progressive organization that has backed Bernie Sanders and championed New York’s new paid family leave law, even has its own state assemblywoman. But with significantly fewer registered voters than the Democratic or Republican parties, these parties may be more vulnerable to manipulation via party crashing.

All this may be useful in protecting the parties at the state level, where factions like the Working Families Party have considerable influence in Albany. Yet in this year’s federal election, New Yorkers are clamoring to make their voices heard in the two major parties’ contests. But come Tuesday, countless New Yorkers—the Trump family and millions of others—will be denied that chance.

Dark Money Was the Real Winner in Wisconsin

(Photo: John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)


With the nation’s attention riveted by the Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz victories in Wisconsin’s presidential primary, an arguably far more important political battle came to a head as a state district judge tried to unseat Republican Governor Scott Walker’s hand-picked choice for the state Supreme Court.

In a bid to shift the ideological makeup of the state’s high court, dark money groups poured more than $2 million into the race. They put their financial muscle behind state Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley who went on to beat Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg by nearly five percentage points in the heated contest.

Bradley’s victory was a disheartening sign for many Wisconsinites who worry that her past vitriolic comments, plus with her apparent alignment with Walker’s conservative ideology, do not bode well for the state judiciary.

Both Sanders and Hillary Clinton had lambasted Bradley for opinion columns that she wrote when she was a Marquette University student. She labeled AIDS patients and gay people “degenerates” and expressed strong anti-women and anti-abortion sentiments.

The dark money-fueled ad war gave the race an ugly undertone. The lion’s share of outside spending came from the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, a conservative group with ties to Walker and the Koch brothers that has been at the center of many controversial state political battles in recent years.

The group spent roughly $1.8 million on ads casting Kloppenburg as soft on crime, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. One ad claimed that Kloppenburg let a sex offender walk free on a technicality, a claim that Politifact concluded was “Mostly False.”

For her part, Kloppenburg benefited from the nearly $400,000 that the liberal group Greater Wisconsin Committee spent attacking Bradley for her past comments and her “extreme views.”

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election is just the latest example of a troubling trend for fair courts advocates. Outside spending has soared in the years since the Citizens United ruling, and conservative political networks are targeting the courts in states where judges are elected in the hopes of adding more conservative judges. Much of that outside spending comes from nonprofit 501(c)(4) groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.

Just last month, a massive influx of dark money in Arkansas’s Supreme Court elections fueled a dirty attack ad war that eventually led Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson to call for judicial election reform.

Outside money in judicial elections has been found to be particularly pernicious. Attack ads in these races predominately focus on crime. One study found that when large numbers of negative TV ads air in a judicial race, the winning candidates are less likely to rule in favor of criminal defendants. Other reports show that outside money tends to produce more corporate-friendly courts.

“This reflects a growing recognition that state courts are extremely powerful and the decisions they make are high stakes for businesses,” says Alicia Bannon, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “If you can impact who sits on that court, that in turn can impact the type of decisions those courts make. That can make a big difference for a business’s bottom line.”