Coordination Watch: How candidates and outside groups work together to evade anti-corruption laws

In the 10 years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has not punished a single candidate or political group for illegally coordinating, according to Issue One’s new project, “Coordination Watch.” 

The project highlights how outside groups that must, by law, be independent from candidates have regularly flouted anti-corruption rules and systematically coordinated with their preferred candidates, allowing wealthy special interests to have outsized influence in our political system. Outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums of money have injected more than $4.4 billion — or about one of every six dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — into federal elections since 2010. 

The 2020 election has already seen allegations of illegal coordination against outside groups supporting candidates in both parties — and in the 2018 election cycle, super PACs and dark money groups outspent the candidates themselves in a record number of races, as Issue One previously noted

“America’s elections have become worse than the Wild West, because at least the Wild West had sheriffs. Today, we have lawless behavior and essentially no cop on the beat,” said Issue One CEO Nick Penniman. “We need to immediately fix the broken political system by doing two things: Repairing the Federal Election Commission, and passing tough laws to punish coordination.”

The FEC lost its quorum and effectively shut down in early September 2019 — more than 136 days ago.

“Coordination Watch” outlines how Congress can further guard against illegal coordination and which bipartisan laws to pass, such as the Political Accountability and Transparency Act. 

The project helps reporters and the public identify coordination between outside groups and candidates. If the answer is “yes” to any of the following six questions, the activity may constitute coordination that would be illegal if the FEC was doing its job.

  1. Is a candidate raising money for an outside group?
  2. Is an outside group running an essential part of a candidate’s campaign?
  3. Has a candidate appeared in ads sponsored by an outside group?
  4. Did a candidate help start an outside group before launching their campaign?
  5. Is a candidate sharing strategic campaign information with an outside group, or vice versa?
  6. Are a candidate and an outside group using the same vendor for expenditures?

For its part, the FEC has been without the quorum necessary to conduct most official business — including taking enforcement actions against those who violate anti-coordination rules — since September 1, 2019. The lack of a quorum has made a bad situation worse, which is why Washington needs to take steps to create a functional FEC that is truly committed to enforcing the laws on the books.

The Political Accountability and Transparency Act (H.R. 679), which would fortify existing anti-coordination rules, is sponsored by Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), John Katko (R-NY), Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Kathleen Rice (D-NY), and Greg Steube (R-FL).

See the “Coordination Watch” project at www.coordinationwatch.org