Organizer: American Promise
The 2021 American Promise National Citizen Leadership Conference is going to be an energetic, inspiring and dynamic event full of engaging speakers like former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Harvard Professor Danielle Allen and many more. The conference will also bring together citizen leaders from across the nation who are fighting to stop the big money system from completely taking over our democracy.
The Georgia Republican Party and a conservative nonprofit have come under scrutiny for allegedly violating federal campaign finance law during the state's Senate runoff elections in January.
A pair of good-government groups, the Campaign Legal Center Action and Common Cause Georgia, filed a complaint Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission alleging that True the Vote, which says its mission to restore confidence in elections by combating voter fraud, illegally coordinated with the Georgia Republican Party ahead of the runoffs.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, True the Vote is prohibited from donating directly or indirectly to a political committee. Because it coordinated with the Georgia GOP, the complaint alleges, both parties violated campaign finance rules.
In December, True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht announced in an email to supporters and in a press release that the Texas-based organization would assist the Georgia Republican Party with the runoffs. Her group helped with signature verification training, ballot curing support, a voter hotline, absentee ballot drop box monitoring and other election integrity initiatives.
Federal law prohibits corporations from making contributions — which include "coordinated expenditures" — to a political committee (other than a super PAC). The complaint alleges that the services True the Vote provided constitute expenditures and because they were done at the request of and in coordination with the state GOP, the activity amounts to prohibited in-kind contributions.
"It doesn't matter if True the Vote expressly urged voters to elect Republicans, the relevant legal question is whether True the Vote spent money 'in connection with an election' and coordinated that spending with the Georgia Republican Party," said Brendan Fischer, CLCA's director of federal reform. "The evidence shows that it did."
True the Vote did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At the time the partnership was announced, Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer wrote that he was grateful for True the Vote's help in fighting for election integrity. "The resources of True the Vote will help us organize and implement the most comprehensive ballot security initiative in Georgia history," he said in the press release.
While working with the Georgia GOP, True the Vote challenged the eligibility of more than 364,000 voters ahead of the runoffs, claiming those voters may have recently moved and therefore weren't eligible to vote. In response, Stacey Abrahm's voting rights group Fair Fight filed a lawsuit alleging True the Vote's challenge amounted to voter intimidation.
A federal judge ultimately denied Fair Fight's request to stop the challenge, but expressed "grave concerns" about True the Vote challenging hundreds of thousands of voters' eligibility so close to the runoffs.
CLCA and Common Cause Georgia went further, filing a complaint.
"Corporations are not supposed to act as arms of campaigns, and since coordinated spending is just as valuable to candidates and political parties as direct contributions, coordination between outside spenders and their preferred political party must be strictly policed and enforced," the groups wrote in their press release about the complaint.
It will now be reviewed by FEC staff attorneys, who will develop a report and recommendation to the six commissioners about whether there is reason to believe the law was violated.
But this won't likely be a quick process. While the complaint's review will only take a few months, it could sit in the FEC's backlog of pending cases for as long as two years, Fischer said, since the agency has been slow to move on such issues.
If the FEC fails to take action in a timely manner, CLCA and Common Cause Georgia could sue the agency in order to have the complaint addressed more expeditiously.
"This is a striking example where the violations were hiding in plain sight," Fischer said. "We hope and expect that the FEC would enforce the law here and penalize both True the Vote and the Georgia Republican Party for this unlawful coordinated activity."
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This is the fourth installment of an ongoing Q&A series.
As Democrats take power in Washington, if only tenuously, many democracy reform groups see a potential path toward making the American political system work better. In this installment, Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, answers our questions about 2020 accomplishments and plans for the year ahead. Her organization works with Democrats, Republicans and independents to strengthen ethics laws, curb big money in politics and modernize elections, among other reforms. (Issue One owns, but is journalistically independent from, The Fulcrum.) McGehee's responses have been edited for clarity and length.
First, let's briefly recap 2020. What was your biggest triumph last year?
Issue One launched the Count Every Vote campaign that brought together the National Council on Election Integrity, a bipartisan group of political, government and civic leaders united around protecting the integrity of our elections. This campaign included more than $10 million in television, print and digital advertising to help ensure every American's vote was counted and to reassure Americans that the 2020 election was safe, secure, free, fair and transparent — which it was.
And your biggest setback?
Despite our efforts — as part of a push by a wide range of groups — we did not succeed in getting a second round of election funding from Congress for states and localities to administer the 2020 election. (The CARES Act, passed in March, did include $400 million, which Issue One, like many organizations, hoped would be a down payment on more funds to come.) After Congress deadlocked on a second bill that would have provided additional funding for election administration, private philanthropy and businesses stepped up to fill some of the gaps. These contributions prevented a nationwide election meltdown, but this is no way to run a country.
What is one learning experience you took from 2020?
The Jan. 6 riots and President Trump's role in fomenting anger and division remind us all we cannot take our democracy for granted. The people are more divided than ever and don't trust our institutions.
Now let's look ahead. What issues will your organization prioritize in 2021?
We'll be focused on strengthening election integrity and administration, responding to the weaknesses in executive branch ethics revealed over the last four years, combatting the corrosive influence of big money in our elections and increasing congressional capacity.
How will Democratic control of the federal government change the ways you work toward your goals?
Having Democrats control Congress and the White House both sets a different tone and changes who initiates the agenda, but it does not change the fact that any legislation has to go through the Senate. And passing legislation in the Senate will still require some modicum of bipartisan support, which is why Issue One will continue to build relationships with Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both chambers.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge moving forward? And how do you plan to tackle it?
The biggest challenge is imaging a path forward where the public believes its elected officials are working for them. That is why Issue One is advocating for reforms that bring sunlight to who is trying to influence our elections, inform the public about who is trying to sway their votes, prevent officials from enriching themselves and ensure that our elections are safe, secure and transparent.
Finish this sentence. In two years, American democracy will …
be stronger, thanks to the hard work of Democrats, Republicans and independents, who want to repair our broken political system and make it possible for all people in the United States to better participate in our system of government.
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