The Internet’s Impact on Political Committees
May 1, 2015
In his book, The Web of Politics: The Internet’s Impact on the American Political System (1999), Richard Davis made predictions of how the Internet would effect politics and how it might be used today by Campaign Committees, the Press and PAC’s. He observed in 1998 that Campaigns were using the “WWW” or “Net” as an extension of written communications to educate citizens, conduct electoral campaigns, and gauge public opinion. As Davis predicted, this trend of electronic communication would continue, but, as we have witnessed, not without some hazards.
Last June the Michigan Secretary of State investigated allegations that a Democratic state House candidate and former school superintendent improperly used their work e-mail to conduct campaign business. The candidate was accused of violating the Michigan Campaign Finance Act (MCFA) for using a government e-mail address to help his campaign by sending numerous solicitations seeking campaign contributions—an improper use of public resources.
It is essential to recognize how the evolution and interaction of these communication mediums can impact your committee operations. Written communications are now seen in the form of e-mail, Facebook posts, tweets & webpages. The MCFA has yet to be updated to reflect these newer methods, however the law should be applied to Internet communications the same way it is applied to “traditional” forms such as print, radio or television advertisements.
Political Committees frequently use the Internet and should think carefully before engaging in its use by first taking into consideration whether each specific activity violates the MCFA.
Websites: Separate Segregated Funds (SSF’s)
SSF’s are only allowed to solicit their membership, salaried, non-clerical employees & above, as well as spouses of employees. This means your PAC website needs to keep any form of solicitation BEHIND a member-login. When communicating or soliciting contributions you must consider the audience and who may have access to those communications. Remember this whenever you make a post on Facebook or the home page to your website; you can talk about the committee but do not solicit in these open forums.
Political & Candidate Committees
Committees not formed as SSF’s are not restricted as to whom they may solicit, therefore they don’t need to be concerned about who lands on their webpage or sees a Facebook post. Much of what you see in open online donation requests is for candidate or political committees without sponsoring organizations.
Candidate endorsements listed on any PAC’s website may be considered an expenditure if the endorsements on the site are there for anyone to see. SSF’s can, however, communicate endorsements behind a “members only” page. This is considered a communication to the organizations paid members or shareholders and are therefore not “expenditures.”
Committees may post endorsements in the open, but these can be considered “of value” to the candidate and should therefore be reported as an “In-kind contribution” to the candidate’s campaign committee.
Candidate committees, on the other hand, can post endorsements if the candidate committee alone makes the expenditure(s) to communicate the endorsement.
Today, e-mail has greatly reduced the use of mailing lists and posted letters to solicit funds. However, there are some pitfalls for certain committees if either is not used in the proper situation.
Candidates may solicit by e-mail provided the e-mail account is their personal account or created for the Committee. Candidates must refrain from the use of any public resource(s) when soliciting or delivering funds. A candidate that currently holds an elected position—or is employed by a public entity—must not use a work e-mail account as it is considered a public resource and therefore a violation of the MCFA.
SSF’s may solicit from their e-mail account as long as they are soliciting within their restricted class or members.
The Value of a Hyperlink
In the late 1990’s the Federal Election Commission ruled that a “hyperlink” itself has value and constitutes a contribution when that link is to a candidate’s website. A hyperlink promises, “additional exposure to members of the general public, which is tantamount to advertising,” and, “in that it is designed to induce the Internet viewer to visit a website he or she would not ordinarily visit” (Source: Declaratory ruling request to the Michigan Secretary of State from Kathleen Corkin Boyle, June 15, 2001).
The use of a hyperlink on a PAC website has value even though the website is maintained primarily for the benefit of an organization’s members. Therefore, if you link to a candidate’s committee page you should report it as an in-kind contribution (unless it’s behind a member-login for SSF’s).
Additionally, a PAC that provides goods and services—direct or in-kind—must pay for them at market price. A PAC that provides a link on its website should assess its market value and then report it as an in-kind contribution to the candidate, or as an independent expenditure. Since a hyperlink is considered a form of advertising, then it stands to reason that one could assign the value of the cost of an advertisement on their website—or use the total cost of creating and placing the link—whichever is higher.
A candidate or PAC may purchase an advertisement or link on a corporate website. For example, an SSF could reimburse its sponsoring organization for a link. However, an advertisement must still contain the relevant identification and disclaimer statements that are required by the MCFA.
Of course, the content above is meant only to serve as a guide. Every filing situation is different and you should always call or email your questions to me (517/482-5311 or Lfarnum1@gmail.com), visit the Bureau of Elections for more information (http://www.michigan.gov/sos/0,4670,7-127-1633_8723—,00.html), and/or consult with your attorney.
- Sponsoring Organization/Separate Segregated Fund (SSF):
Under the MCFA, a corporation is known as the “sponsoring organization.” As the PAC’s connected organization, a corporation may pay all of the PAC’s administrative and solicitation costs. For example, a corporation may pay all legal fees for the PAC, postage for mailings, staff time to compose solicitations, credit card processing fees.
- SSF Solicitation Class/Restricted Class:
Although any U.S. citizen (or permanent resident alien) is permitted to contribute to a PAC, the PAC may solicit only its “restricted class” for contributions. The
restricted class is comprised of the corporation’s (1) salaried, management-level
employees; (2) shareholders; and, (3) these groups’ families. All donors must be
U.S. citizens or green card holders.
A link from a hypertext file or document to another location or file, typically
activated by clicking on a highlighted word or image on the screen.
The Web of Politics: The Internet’s Impact on the American Political System: The
Internet’s Impact on the American Political System
Author: Richard Davis
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 1999
Declaratory ruling request to Michigan Secretary of State by Kathleen Corkin Boyle,
June 15, 2001