Political tensions intensified on Thursday at the Federal Election Commission, as a Republican commissioner charged that conservative groups were the focus of agency reviews into possible impropriety far more than liberal ones. On a commission deeply divided already along party lines, Democrats quickly dismissed the charge as baseless. Lee E. Goodman, one of three Republican commissioners, said at a public meeting that he tallied up the political leanings of groups investigated by the agency for possible campaign violations and found what he said was a system tilted to inquiries of conservative groups.
Partisanship at the Federal Election Commission has hamstrung the agency, as deadlocked investigations have skyrocketed since 2008, according to a new report. Before 2008, the FEC only deadlocked on 1 percent of its votes to trigger punishments for allegations of election law violations, according to the report released Wednesday by the Public Citizen Foundation. Since then, the agency has hit a stalemate on 15 percent. The FEC is made up of three Democratic and three Republican commissioners, and action can only be triggered with a majority vote, which means at least one commissioner must cross party lines before the agency can authorize punishment.
When Philadelphia’s next mayor delivers his victory speech Tuesday night, he should take a moment to praise a most important ally: his super PAC. Before long, it could become a regular part of any winning mayor’s speech. In this open-seat race in the nation’s fifth-largest city, the disparity in spending between super PACs and the official campaigns has been considerable. Heading into the weekend, the race’s three highest-spending groups on TV all were super PACs, according to a Democratic source tracking the buys. One outside group, funded by out-of-town charter-school advocates, had invested more on TV ads than the other campaigns combined.
These days, presidential candidates are not just raising money for their own campaigns. They are also raising money for outside groups with generic sounding names like Priorities USA, Right to Rise and Our American Renewal. These are Super Pacs (political action committees), affiliated with each outside campaign but nominally independent. In 2012, they were helpful appendages. This year, heading into 2016, they are becoming fully fledged substitutes for campaigns, taking over functions including opposition research, polling and even knocking on doors. Super Pacs are just five years old. Like most developments in modern campaign finance law, they were created by accident through judicial decisions, not by legislation.
National: How a super PAC plans to coordinate directly with Hillary Clinton’s campaign | The Washington Post
Hillary Clinton’s campaign plans to work in tight conjunction with an independent rapid-response group financed by unlimited donations, another novel form of political outsourcing that has emerged as a dominant practice in the 2016 presidential race. On Tuesday, Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton rapid-response operation, announced it was splitting off from its parent American Bridge and will work in coordination with the Clinton campaign as a stand-alone super PAC. The group’s move was first reported by the New York Times.
National: The White House Names Princeton University Professor Ed Felten as Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer | Planet Princeton
Edward Felten, a Princeton University computer scientist who is a leading expert on computer security, has been named deputy chief technology officer in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The White House announced the appointment this afternoon. Felten has been teaching at Princeton University since 1993. In 2005, he was named director of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. His research interests include public policy issues related to information technology, including electronic voting, cybersecurity policy, technology for government transparency, and Internet policy.
More than half of Senate Democrats voted with Republicans in December to increase fundraising limits for the political parties. The change was tucked in the 1,599th page of a 1,603-page budget deal. Given how aggressively Republicans are taking advantage of the new rules, and how little they seem to be benefiting Democrats, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid may regret his support. The Republican National Committee raised almost $26 million in the first quarter of 2015, $10 million more than the Democratic National Committee — even though the DNC has President Barack Obama headlining fundraising events. The RNC owes its advantage to huge donations, which were formally prohibited.
National: Why the Democratic path to a House majority may run through a courtroom | The Washington Post
Many Democrats are bullish on their chances of winning back the Senate next year, and most sound confident they can hold on to the White House. Few think they have a prayer of taking back the House of Representatives. So now they’re playing the long game – turning to the courts to help deliver what the ballot box won’t. Top Democratic attorneys are arguing before state and federal courts that district maps drawn in a handful of states violate the Voting Rights Act by improperly packing African American voters into a small number of districts, limiting their influence.
Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel, an outspoken advocate of tougher campaign finance laws who has been criticized as too partisan by some Republicans, says she’s open to a GOP idea of increasing campaign contribution limits as a way to stem the flow of money to super PACs and other outside groups. “I wouldn’t object to the raising of contribution limits,” the Democratic appointee told POLITICO in an interview. “But I wouldn’t want to totally eliminate contribution limits because what would worry me about that is that the candidates would then become like the super PACs, and it would drown out small donors.”
Introducing himself as a former Oregon state elections official, online voting industry lobbyist Donald DeFord vouched authoritatively to a Washington state legislative panel in late January as to the merits of statewide internet voting. Oregon, he testified, ultimately came to the “same solution” offered by a bill before the Washington state House that would allow everybody to cast their election ballots by email or fax – an option that top cyber security experts warn would expose elections to hackers. “First in a special congressional election and then statewide, we made our accessible online ballot delivery and return system available to any voter who was not able to use a paper ballot,” DeFord, a regional sales director for San Diego-based Everyone Counts, told the committee. There was a big problem with that testimony. Oregon doesn’t allow voters to send in marked ballots electronically, except for troops and citizens living abroad who have been prevented from mailing their absentee ballots due to an emergency or other extenuating circumstances. DeFord now says he “misspoke.”
The leader of the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with regulating the way political money is raised and spent, says she has largely given up hope of reining in abuses in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could generate a record $10 billion in spending. “The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel, the chairwoman, said in an interview. “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.” Her unusually frank assessment reflects a worsening stalemate among the agency’s six commissioners. They are perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines on key votes because of a fundamental disagreement over the mandate of the commission, which was created 40 years ago in response to the political corruption of Watergate.
Jeremy Epstein, senior computer scientist at non-profit research institute SRI International spoke to the Computer Weekly Developer Network blog this week to share his views on the possibility of electronic voting security. Epstein says that although some e-voting is happening in the US, Estonia and other countries — this is not *secure* e-voting, it’s just e-voting. Every system developed so far has been found to be insecure. “From a technical perspective, we’re at least 10 years away from secure e-voting, and many experts think we’re 20 or 30 years away,” he said.
National: The Supreme Court said judges can’t solicit campaign contributions. This probably won’t matter. | The Washington Post
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Williams-Yulee v. State Bar of Florida, ruling that judicial candidates could not directly solicit campaign contributions. This marked the first time that the Roberts Court has ruled in favor of a 1st Amendment regulation in an elections case. At least some reporting about the case suggested it was a big deal, as seen in headlines like “Campaign finance reformers just won a massive victory at the Supreme Court.” In reality, the decision is likely to have very little impact on the actual conduct of judicial elections, or on how the public views those elections. Here is why. First, it is not clear that a judicial candidate’s personally soliciting campaign contributions necessarily makes that individual less impartial than a judge who does not personally solicit contributions.
Penalties levied by the Federal Election Commission for campaign finance violations have plummeted to record lows even as political spending has soared, according to newly released data from the agency. The statistics underscore the sharp decline in enforcement at the commission, which has come under fresh scrutiny because of partisan gridlock. By law, each party has three commissioners, resulting in recent years in a 3-to-3 vote on virtually any significant issue. Republicans on the commission say they believe the drop in fines shows that campaigns are generally following the law as a result of better training and compliance programs. Democrats say it is a troubling sign of lax enforcement.
National: Huckabee’s Pitch, Whether Joke or Not, At Odds With Federal Election Law | Wall Street Journal
In his presidential campaign announcement on Tuesday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee emphasized his status as a Washington outsider who would not be “funded and fueled” by billionaires. But as he decried wealthy donors’ influence in the political system, he also ran afoul of federal election law. Mr. Huckabee said his campaign would be funded by “working people who will find out that $15 and $25 a month contributions can take us from Hope to higher ground,” he said, a reference to Hope, Ark., where he was speaking. But, he cracked: “Rest assured, if you want to give a million dollars, please do it.” Not so fast. Individuals are only permitted to give up to $2,700 per election to a candidate, according to Federal Election Commission rules. Though in a joking manner, Mr. Huckabee was likely making a pitch to the audience on behalf of a super PAC, Pursuing America’s Greatness, that he formed last month to back his campaign. Super PACs can accept unlimited donations from individuals but are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns.
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a sobering interview with the head of the Federal Election Commission, who confirmed that she had largely given up on the agency playing a meaningful role in restraining fundraising and spending abuses in the 2016 campaign. The commissioners are deadlocked, FEC chair Ann Ravel said, because Republican members of the commission think the FEC should exercise less robust oversight, meaning the agency has become “worse than dysfunctional” at a time when outside money is poised to play an even larger role than it did in the last two cycles.
Iowans can expect to see a lot more of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker popping up in their Google browsers, if he decides to run for president later this year. That’s because the Walker team advertised aggressively on the popular search engine during his 2014 re-election and will likely do so again, should he pursue a White House bid. They spent heavily on Google ads to raise money and target voters. The Walker campaign was so aggressive in 2014 that Google highlighted its efforts in a just-released case study about the midterm campaigns. Among the findings: Mr. Walker’s re-election team raised more money from ads pegged to Google searches than it spent to buy space above those search results, an unusually high return-on-investment for political campaigns; his team also worked with the company to reach more than 5 million targeted voters in key ZIP codes through YouTube ads in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
National: Supreme Court upholds ban on judicial candidates soliciting campaign contributions — even via mass mailings – The Washington Post
In 39 states, judges are popularly elected (or at least voters must decide whether to retain them). This means that judicial candidates — especially ones who aren’t incumbents — have to campaign for office, and those campaigns cost money. Campaigns thus have to raise that money, in contributions from the public. This raises an obvious danger: Judges may well be influenced to rule in favor of those lawyers or litigants who contributed to their campaigns. Even if the judges are trying hard to be honest, and to ignore who helped them and who didn’t, thinking better of your political friends is human nature, and hard to avoid. Such favoritism is even more harmful for judges, who are supposed to be impartial, than for elected officials. And the possibility of such favoritism undermines “public confidence in the fairness and integrity of the nation’s elected judges” (to quote today’s Court decision). Nor does capping the size of contributions (as states may do for all candidates, legislative, executive, or judicial) solve the problem.
A group of Democrats introduced legislation Thursday to overhaul and streamline the way the nation’s 435 U.S. House districts are redrawn every decade to reflect population shifts determined by the U.S. Census. “What we see now is too often a troubling reality in which politicians choose their voters instead of voters picking their elected officials,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a lead sponsor of legislation she says would create “a more transparent electoral process.”
National: Supreme Court Rules States Can Bar Judicial Candidates From Soliciting Donations | Wall Street Journal
A divided Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that states can prohibit judicial candidates from soliciting campaign donations, rejecting arguments such bans violate the free-speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court’s majority in a 5-4 opinion, said judges aren’t politicians, even when they join the bench by way of an election.“A state’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office,” the chief justice wrote. “A state may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor—and without having personally asked anyone for money.”
The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that states may prohibit judicial candidates from personally asking their supporters for campaign contributions. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the court’s four-member liberal wing to form a majority. “A state’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the decision was a disguised attack on judicial elections that “flattens one settled First Amendment principle after another.”
The arguments on Facebook regarding Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement that she was running for president began politely at first but slowly grew more vitriolic with each back and forth. Eventually, Madison Payne, a 27-year-old from Tyler, Tex., had had enough. So she took revenge against the Clinton opponents, simply clicking “unfollow.” “If I see somebody that is just so hateful, then of course I’m going to unfollow them,” said Ms. Payne, whose “friend” count on Facebook has dwindled since Mrs. Clinton’s announcement. “I’ve lost touch with many great childhood friends of mine due to social media providing a platform for political discussion.”
It’s fair to say that Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential bid marked a watershed moment for political campaigners. This was a campaign covered in Silicon Valley’s fingerprints, characterized as it was by its widespread use of technology to capture and record data to deliver targeted messages to voters. As one former Obama campaign manager said: “We stopped thinking in terms of ‘soccer moms’ and started thinking instead about ‘Mary Smith at 37 Pivot Street.’” What was once done with pen and paper is now being done in real time and at a staggering pace, providing politicians and their election teams with a far richer picture of voters than previously possible. Next month will see the UK head to the polls for its first general election since 2010, which has been described as one of the most unpredictable in living memory. Throughout Westminster, political parties are putting their faith in technology to gain an edge over their rivals, defend vulnerable seats and better connect with the electorate. Both Labour candidate Ed Miliband and Prime Minister David Cameron have hired former Obama advisers to head up their campaign teams, which look to replicate the success of Democrats in securing key votes.
Jimmy Carter didn’t hesitate when asked how he would feel about running for president today. “I couldn’t possibly do it, because I have very little money,” the 90-year-old said at a press conference during a recent visit to Wilkes-Barre. “And now it takes $200 million if you want any chance to get the Democratic or Republican nomination.” Since 1976, when Mr. Carter, a Democrat, became the 39th president of the United States, campaigns — and financing them — have changed dramatically. In the early 1970s, individuals and organizations were limited as to what they could contribute to political campaigns. But campaign financing has been reshaped over the past 40 years due to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
National: Sen. Grassley: No Need To Fix Voting Rights Act Since ‘More Minorities Are Already Voting’ | Huffington Post
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Monday he doesn’t expect to bring up legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, because lots of minority people are already voting. During an event at the National Press Club, Grassley was asked about the committee considering a bill that would fix the landmark 1965 law. The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the law in 2013, ruling that it needed to be updated. The section determined which states and localities with a history of suppressing minority voters had to get permission from the Justice Department to change their voting laws. The justices instructed Congress to come up with a new formula for designating which regions of the country warrant special scrutiny. Grassley dismissed the idea that there’s a need to act.
National: Federal Election Commission Deadlock Could Open Door To More Foreign Money In Local Ballot Initiatives | HNGN
“Imagine, for example, a foreign billionaire who was dissatisfied with U.S. Immigration policy and decided to try to change it more his own liking, one statewide ballot measure at a time,” wrote Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub. “The ballot measure is the mechanism design to most directly express the will of the American people regarding the laws that govern us. I think most Americans would be disturbed by the notion that a wealthy foreigner could freely spend to rewrite our laws.” In reaching a 3-3 deadlock, the Federal Election Commission decided to not investigate allegations that an international pornography and advertising firm made $327,000 in donations to a campaign to defeat a ballot initiative in Los Angeles County, a move that some worry could open the door to more foreign money in state elections.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is introducing legislation to expand online voter registration, which would allow all eligible voters across the country to register online. The legislation would open online registration to nearly 100 million potential registrants who currently are without it, according to an announcement from her office on Saturday.
Candidate Hillary Clinton thinks there’s too much money in politics. But President Hillary Clinton — should she win — will find it very difficult to change that. Vowing to fix the country’s campaign finance system is a perennial campaign trail promise, especially for Democrats. But finding ways to reduce the amount of money in politics has bedeviled every presidential administration since Bill Clinton’s. Mr. Clinton promised campaign finance changes early in his first term. Barack Obama ran against big money in politics in 2008, even though he became the first candidate to refuse public financing in the general election since the system was introduced in the 1970s. Mrs. Clinton advocated expanding publicly-financed campaigns during her first run for office.
This weekend in Miami Jeb Bush will huddle with a group of his top donors at a brand new “nature-centric,” $700-a-night South Beach hotel, replete with four pools, a Tom Colicchio restaurant and an 11,000-plant “living green wall.” The point, though, isn’t tranquility and relaxation – it’s survival. For a time, it looked like Bush would steamroll the GOP field with a cash-flush juggernaut that might raise as much as $100 million in the first quarter, using a variety of super PACs to push the boundaries of campaign finance laws and dominate the field. But that was before New York hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer pledged more than $15 million to Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio gained the full-fleged support of Miami billionaire Norman Braman and became the front-runner to win casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s backing. Another rival, Scott Walker, recently became the favorite of billionaire David Koch, who seemed to tip his support for the Wisconsin governor at a fundraiser this week.
Washington is gridlocked. But nothing in Washington is as gridlocked as the Federal Election Commission. That includes party planning. This year is the 40th anniversary of the FEC, which was founded in the wake of Watergate. In figuring out how to mark the occasion, officials past and present argued about whether to rent a theater, whether to publish a report, whether to serve bagels or doughnuts, and whether, in fact, the agency even had an anniversary worth noting. “Actually, the FEC isn’t really 40, having been declared unconstitutional not once but twice, first in 1976, and as recently as 1993,” said Don McGahn, who served as a Republican commissioner from 2008 to 2013. “So, having turned 21, it is barely old enough to drink.”