How the GOP used Twitter to stretch election laws

by - November 18, 2014

Republicans and outside groups used anonymous Twitter accounts to share internal polling data ahead of the midterm elections, CNN has learned, a practice that raises questions about whether they violated campaign finance laws that prohibit coordination. The Twitter accounts were hidden in plain sight. The profiles were publicly available but meaningless without knowledge of how to find them and decode the information, according to a source with knowledge of the activities.

The practice is the latest effort in the quest by political operatives to exploit the murky world of campaign finance laws at a time when limits on spending in politics are eroding and regulators are being defanged. The law says that outside groups, such as super PACs and non-profits, can spend freely on political causes as long as they don't coordinate their plans with campaigns. Sharing costly internal polls in private, for instance, could signal to the campaign committees where to focus precious time and resources.

The groups behind the operation had a sense of humor about what they were doing. One Twitter account was named after Bruno Gianelli, a fictional character in The West Wing who pressed his colleagues to use ethically questionable "soft money" to fund campaigns. A typical tweet read: "CA-40/43-44/49-44/44-50/36-44/49-10/16/14-52-->49/476-10s." The source said posts like that -- which would look like gibberish to most people -- represented polling data for various House races.

Source: How the GOP used Twitter to stretch election laws - CNN.com

The definition of "coordinated" in campaign spending sits on murky legal territory. In this case, since the tweets were posted publicly, albeit quietly, it's unclear whether any rules were violated. The GOP accused Democrats of skirting campaign laws when tweets posted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's accounts later showed up in ads funded by outside groups. It does seem like the people behind the Twitter accounts had a sense of humor. As CNN explains, one of the now-deleted accounts was named after the fictional West Wing character Bruno Gianelli, who attempted to fund campaigns with possibly unethical cash.

Source: The GOP used Twitter to skirt campaign finance laws, CNN says | The Verge

The issue was thrust into the spotlight Monday after CNN reported that the House Republicans’ campaign arm and two of the biggest outside groups that support GOP candidates – American Action Network and American Crossroads – used anonymous Twitter accounts to share internal polling data, citing a source with knowledge of the activities.  The Twitter accounts that broadcast the poll data during the 2014 cycle had such names as brunogianelli44 – named after a character on the TV show “The West Wing” – and broadcast in extreme shorthand, with one tweet on polling data in a California House race reading “CA-40/43-44/49-44/44-50/36-44/49-10/16/14-52–>49/476-10s,” according to the CNN story. The Twitter accounts, which couldn’t be easily linked back to their authors, were deleted shortly after CNN contacted the groups about their existence, CNN said. The House GOP fundraising arm–the National Republican Congressional Committee–and the two groups declined to comment on the CNN report. Both American Action Network and American Crossroads are staffed heavily by former campaign aides to the NRCC and tend to complement the party’s official political activity by running campaign ads in weeks when the party is dark. House Majority PAC occupies a similar role for the Democrats. Campaign-finance laws prohibit these groups that collect limitless sums, called super PACs, from coordinating directly with individual campaigns or the party committees supporting them. As a result, Republican and Democratic groups have devised a series of workarounds to publicly communicate polling and strategy, using press releases, Web videos and other means. Whether the groups’ reported actions could be illegal depends on two factors, said Kenneth Gross, the former head of the Federal Election Commission’s enforcement division. The first is whether the groups exchanged a decoder in order to understand the tweets. “The real thing that’s a problem is if there’s some sort of prearrangement,” he said. “If you put gibberish out on the street, that in and of itself is not a problem—if someone can figure it out.” The second question, Mr. Gross said, is whether publishing data in a public forum, but through an obscure account, counts as public information. “That’s a question that would have to be addressed,” he said. Sharing nonpublic polling data with another committee is generally treated as a contribution, said Jan Baran, a campaign-finance lawyer with Wiley Rein. The sharing of information via Twitter accounts, therefore, could be considered as a contribution from a super PAC to a party committee, which the FEC prohibits. The groups could also run into trouble for having failed to report the exchange as a contribution on their filings.

Source: Sharing Data on Twitter Raises Campaign-Finance Questions - Washington Wire - WSJ

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