Through a series of Supreme Court rulings, federal election rules have undergone serious changes, allowing for the creation of political organizations called Super PACs, where unlimited amounts of money can be spent on behalf of a candidate or cause. The creation of the Super PAC ultimately stems from the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in 2010. The ruling left very few restrictions on Super PAC spending, but one rule is ironclad — Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with specific political candidates or political parties. The rule seems like something that would be easy to enforce. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case.
Investigative reporting from the 2014 election cycle unearthed evidence that the Republican Party had violated elections law by using Twitter to facilitate the communication of Super PACs and the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Federal law bars any coordination between Super PACs and the candidates and political parties they support. Several twitter accounts sent out a series of tweets apparently detailing private internal poll numbers for Republican candidates. One such tweet read, “CA-40/43–44/49–44/44–50/36–44/49–10/16/14–52 →49/476–10s”.
To outside observers, the numbers appeared to be random numbers, but upon closer inspection, they were to be polling data. CA conceivably could stand for California. The series of numbers, starting with 40/43 could represent polling data including head to head matchups between the candidate, as well as favorability and job approval of the candidates. The “10/16/14” number could simply signify the day the poll was taken.
The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee were contacted about the accounts, and immediately after, the accounts were suspiciously deleted. In response to the reporting at the time, F.E.C Vice Chairwoman Ann Revel tweeted on her account that the incident, “Shows that tech changing politics-this issue may come before us — but coordination rules sadly murky”. It remains an open question as to whether or not the actions taken by the RCCC were illegal since they were posted in a public forum for all to see, rather than directly communicated to a Super PAC. Republicans may have simply found a loophole in the rules governing the interactions of political parties and Super PACs.
It appears Republicans were not the only party that used Twitter to coordinate with Super PACs. Days later it was revealed Democrats may have also coordinated in a potentially illegal manner as well. In the 2012 elections, a Twitter handle known as AdBuyDetails sent out a series of tweets that revealed the various advertisements bought by Democratic House candidates across the country. The Twitter account was created by the Democratic Party, presumably to show Super PACs where money was officially being spent by the party and candidates so that Democratic Super PACs could then more strategically plan when and where to allocate their time and resources to help Democratic candidates.
Theses two cases should have opened new inquiries into campaign finance laws and how the limited laws were applied. Instead, they were the tip of the iceberg. Wikileaks revealed direct coordination between the Clinton campaign and an affiliated Super PAC that would have never been uncovered if not for an unprecedented hacking and leak campaign perpetrated by Russian intelligence. Meanwhile, the largest foreign contribution in history (to candidate Jeb Bush) was only discovered after reporting by the Intercept in 2018.
Campaign finance laws aren’t treated with proper seriousness. The laws are vague and the enforcement of the laws is practically unheard of. Until the laws are further clarified and the FEC is given real teeth, candidates will have little reason to push their luck-and will likely never be punished for it.