Political Ads on the Attack
Campaign shadow groups enjoy more liberties in Florida.
Mark Herron, a Tallahassee attorney who specializes in ethics and election law, says the 527s are popular because they “give groups and entities an opportunity to more directly participate in the process” and provide more control over the volume and tone of the message.
527s also provide an end-run around limits on campaign contributions. Florida law limits political donations to $500 per candidate per election, but the 527s — or, as Florida calls them, electioneering communications organizations (ECO) — aren’t constrained by any limits. As long as groups don’t directly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate by using the words “vote for” or “vote against,” they can raise as much as they want.
And while federal campaign finance law strictly prohibits coordination between a federal candidate’s campaign and a 527 group, Florida law makes no such prohibition. State and local candidates can even raise funds for an ECO that’s running favorable ads about them.
Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, says Florida’s lack of regulation turns the 527s into “basically slush funds where people can make unlimited amounts of contributions, and then they’re able to use to money for political ads.” Florida’s laxity, says Wilcox, creates “so many loopholes around the $500 direct contribution limits to candidates that the limits are basically meaningless.”
A bill that would have required the state Division of Elections to create a “Florida Campaign Sunshine” public website containing copies of all political advertisements, as well as any supporting documentation for the ads’ claims, went nowhere in the last legislative session.
Meanwhile, a recent Supreme Court ruling has opened the floodgates for even more independent political advertising this year. The 2002 McCain-Feingold finance reform law made it a federal crime for corporations and labor unions to use funds to pay for broadcast ads that refer to a federal candidate and run within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. Last summer, the high court struck down those restrictions as unconstitutional.
In addition to 527s, political operatives this season will also use other vehicles such as 501(c)4s to get their messages out. 501(c)4s are non-profit social welfare organizations, and they are free to engage in political activity so long as it doesn’t constitute their primary purpose.
While traditional 501(c)4s such as the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund have typically pursued narrow and specific policy interests, a new breed of 501(c)4s is focusing more generally on a broad ideology in line with particular parties and candidates. Like 527s, they can take in unlimited contributions, but the main feature of 501(c)4s is in their secrecy — the groups aren’t required to disclose their contributors or how they spend their money.