Did the Republicans violate election laws in 2014 midterms? Twitter offers clues

Are coded messages on Twitter a violation of federal laws prohibiting campaign finance coordination? The Federal Electoral Commission hasn't explicitly ruled on it – yet. 


Republicans and outside groups covertly conspired to skirt campaign finance laws using one of the most public social media available: Twitter.

That's according to a report by CNN's Chris Moody, "How the GOP used Twitter to stretch election laws," that suggests that Republicans and Republican-oriented super PACs and advocacy groups used Twitter accounts to share internal polling data ahead of the midterm elections, "a practice that raises questions about whether they violated campaign finance laws that prohibit coordination," writes CNN.

The strategy appears to be something out of a spy movie.

Anonymous Twitter accounts, including @TruthTrain14 and @brunogianelli44, named after the fictional character in "The West Wing" who pushed for the use of "soft money" in campaign funding, were set up in the months leading up to November's midterm elections. Enigmatic messages were periodically tweeted; inscrutable to most, they conveyed internal polling data, which could signal to outside groups where to devote campaign resources.

For example, one tweet read: "@truthtrain14 FL-44/42-44/44-35/35-42/41-49/47-10/22/14-26"

As the Washington Post reported in its attempt to decode the tweets, the message appears to be outlining poll results from a House race in Florida taken on Oct. 22 in district 26.

According to CNN, the twitter accounts were live until Nov. 3 – one day ahead of the elections – but deleted minutes after CNN contacted the National Republican Congressional Committee with questions.

At least two outside groups and a Republican campaign committee had access to the information posted to the accounts, according to CNN's source. They include American Crossroads, the super PAC founded by Karl Rove; American Action Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is the campaign arm for the House GOP.

So why might these tweets violate campaign finance laws?

Federal Election Commission (FEC) law allows outside groups like super PACs and non-profits to spend unlimited funds on political causes -- as long as they don't coordinate their plans with campaigns. By sharing internal poll data via lightly encoded tweets, campaign committees may have been signaling to outside groups where to target resources for ads, for example.

The Twitter strategy also illustrates the fallout of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which removed limits on outside spending on elections, and paved the way for a slew of clever new strategies. In response to the Court's decision, which opened the floodgates of spending by outside groups, the FEC banned coordination between those outside groups and campaigns. The only problem is that no one really knows what "coordination" entails.

Like the Twitter campaign.

"It might not be legal. It's a cutting edge practice that, to my knowledge, the Federal Election Commission has never before addressed to explicitly determine its legality or permissibility." Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization focused on campaign finance issues, told CNN.

FEC vice-chair Ann Ravel tweeted this response to the CNN story:

And campaigns are taking advantage of the murkiness.

It's not the first time groups have been accused of using Twitter to coordinate campaign plans. 

In April, Republicans accused Democrats of attempting to "subvert campaign finance laws" when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's official Twitter accounts posted messages that Democratic super PACs later incorporated into their ads, CNN reported.

And while the strategy certainly appears to stretch the law, legal repercussions are unlikely.

"It may bend common sense, but not necessarily the law," said Daniel Tokaji, a professor of Constitutional Law at Ohio State University, told CNN. "A lot of things you and I would consider coordination are not coordination under the law. I don't think sharing polling data is going to be enough to establish that the campaign was materially involved in decisions about content, target audience or timing."

The strategy also shows an impressive level of premeditation and planning.

"In many instances, we have very sophisticated political players with really good lawyers who know where the legal lines are and know where to push them to their client's advantage," Ryan, of the Campaign Legal Center, told CNN.

Adds the Washington Post's Philip Bump, "With all that money washing around and political power at stake, everyone sits down with their lawyers and figures out what the letter of the law allows."

In other words, it's probably not the last time we'll be hearing about these kinds of tactics.

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