Benjamin Keane

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signs expansive new elections bill

Introduction

Late last week, the Georgia General Assembly passed and Governor Brian Kemp signed into law Senate Bill 202 — a far-reaching overhaul of state election law that will have a significant impact on the electoral process across the State of Georgia for years to come. The bill, opposed en masse by Democrats and many voting rights advocacy groups, impacts nearly every aspect of the election system in Georgia, including vote tabulation, voter identification requirements, State Election Board composition and ballot drop box placement and accessibility. The bill passed along party lines in both the House (100-75) and the Senate (34-20) on March 25 and was signed by the Governor that same day.

This alert is intended to provide an overview of the bill and its major positions. A more detailed analysis can be provided upon request.

Absentee ballots

One of the most impactful and widely-reported aspects of the 98-page bill is its establishment of absentee ballot identification requirements for Georgia voters. While the right to vote by absentee for any reason was preserved, any person applying for an absentee-by-mail ballot will now have to provide the following personal information to receive a ballot:

  • His or her name
  • Date of birth
  • Registration address
  • Address where the elector wishes the ballot to be mailed
  • The number of his or her Georgia driver’s license or issued identification card
  • A copy of an alternative form of identification if such elector does not have a Georgia driver’s license or issued identification card

When returning an absentee ballot, Georgia voters will now also need to provide the following on a separate ballot envelope inside the return envelope:

  • His or her name
  • A signature
  • The number of his or her Georgia driver’s license or issued identification card
  • An affirmation that the voter does not have a Georgia driver’s license or identification card in the event he or she does not possess such a license or card 
  • Date of birth
  • The last four digits of his or her Social Security Number if the elector does not have a Georgia driver’s license or state identification card

In addition to requiring the above information in conjunction with the absentee ballot request and return processes, the bill shortens the time frame within which voters can request absentee ballots under state law. The request period will now start 11 weeks before any given election and end 11 days before such election. Finally, state and local governments are prohibited from distributing unsolicited absentee applications to potential voters, and third-party groups circulating absentee ballot applications to Georgia voters are required to utilize prescribed labeling on materials and only send such materials to individuals who have not already requested, received or voted such absentee ballots.

Ballot drop boxes

In the wake of the State Elections Board’s emergency authorization of ballot drop box usage during the 2020 election due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senate Bill 202 codifies the permissibility of drop box usage and requires all counties to have at least one such depository. The bill places limits, however, on the total number of drop boxes per county, capping the allowable number of depositories at the lesser of either one drop box for every 100,000 active registered voters or the total number of advance voting locations in the county.

In addition to restricting the number of total ballot drop box locations that Georgia counties can utilize for election purposes, Senate Bill 202 also mandates that drop box depositories: be located only inside early voting locations; be used only during advanced voting hours; and be under constant surveillance by an election official, law enforcement official or licensed security guard. Finally, the bill prohibits the usage of ballot drop boxes by voters during the last four days before an election.

Runoff election changes

In response to recent consternation over the lengthy runoff period codified in Georgia law for primary, general and special runoff elections, Senate Bill 202 seeks to shorten Georgia’s existing nine-week runoff period down to four weeks by sending military and overseas voters instant-runoff ranked choice absentee ballots. The legislation also shortens in-person early voting for runoff elections to a period of one week before election day. Additionally, Senate Bill 202 also replaces the previous “jungle primary” system for special election seats with a framework that includes party primaries. 

Early voting

At present under Georgia law, in-person early voting for general elections is required for three weeks prior to election day during “normal business hours” Monday through Friday and during the same time period on one Saturday during the pre-election period. Senate Bill 202 adds an extra Saturday to this early voting period and affords localities the option of instituting Sunday early voting as they see fit.

Despite this expansion of early voting opportunities for general elections, the incorporation of a shortened runoff period for state runoff elections will reduce early voting in such settings to just one week before the special election date.

Election management

Senate Bill 202 also contains a wide range of election management provisions that will have a significant impact on how Georgia elections will proceed in upcoming cycles. These changes include the following:

  • Allowing officials to process absentee ballots before the official closing of polls on election day
  • Requiring officials to count ballots nonstop once the polls close
  • Allowing flexibility with voting equipment for smaller, lower-turnout races
  • Prohibiting local election officials and boards of registrars from accepting outside funding, grants or gifts from private third-party groups
  • Permitting poll workers to serve in neighboring counties
  • Clarifying that poll hours at precinct locations may only be extended by judicial order upon showing of good cause
  • Requiring that no later than 10PM on election night counties must make public the total number of votes cast by each method
  • Mandating that all absentee ballots have to be counted by 5PM the day after the election
  • Disallowing voters who go to the wrong precinct from submitting provisional ballots in most cases
  • Requiring specific paper with additional security features to be used for ballots to create a verifiable paper trail of votes
  • Requiring precincts with more than 2,000 voters that have lines longer than an hour at three different points throughout the day to add more machines, add more staff or split up the precincts
  • Prohibiting the use of phones, cameras and other electronic devices to photograph or record a voted ballot or an elector while voting a ballot
  • Requiring the Secretary of State to conduct a pilot program to post scanned ballot images from elections
  • Establishing a hotline to the Attorney General’s office to report illegal or fraudulent behavior
  • Requiring counties to certify election results within six days
  • Limiting mobile polling stations to emergencies
  • Extending the current state bar on electioneering and political engagement activities in and around polling places and voter lines to include the third-party distribution of food and drink to prospective voters

State Election Board changes

Senate Bill 202 also makes several notable changes to the composition and powers of the Georgia State Election Board, bringing it under control of the state legislature and allowing it, in specific circumstances, to unilaterally take control of elections from local elections officials. In regard to composition, the legislation removes the Secretary of State as chair of the State Election Board and replaces him with a chairperson elected by the General Assembly.

Under the legislation’s provisions, the State Election Board has also been granted the power to remove county election boards and replace them with an interim elections manager if they deem the local boards as in need of intervention. At no time may the State Election Board suspend more than four county or municipal elections managers. This process is initiated by the ability of county commissions, the General Assembly, or the State Election Board to initiate a performance review of local officials.

Conclusion

As summarized above, Senate Bill 202 significantly amends the electoral process in Georgia and will have a profound impact on future state election cycles. Despite the bill’s passage, however, the political and legal fight over its various components has just begun. Although two major provisions contained in an earlier version of the law — the termination of non-excuse absentee voting for individuals under 65 and the prohibition of Sunday voting — were struck from the final legislation, several voting rights groups have vowed to fight the bill in court. As of the publication of this alert, a federal lawsuit has already been filed by third-party organizations challenging the absentee ID requirements, drop box limits, provisional ballot invalidations, and food and drink distribution bar as “unjustifiable burdens” on Georgia voters. The Dentons Georgia Public Policy and Political Law Teams will continue to monitor those lawsuits as they proceed, and likewise seek to update our clients on other election and voting rights matters in Georgia and beyond, as they are certain to be a major political focus in the 2022 statewide elections and upcoming federal legislative battles in Congress.  

FEC Increases Contribution Limits For 2021-2022

Earlier this week, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) announced the updated federal contribution limits for the 2021-2022 election cycle as required under the Federal Election Campaign Act. The new per election and per calendar year limits are effective for the entirety of 2022 election cycle starting late last year. Below is a chart that explains the new limits applicable to specific donors and recipients.

Donor Recipient
Candidate Committee PAC Super PAC State, Local or District Party Committee (Federal Accounts) National Party Committee Main Account National Party Committee Special Accounts
Individual $2,900 per election $5,000 per year Unlimited $10,000 per year (combined)

$36,500 per year

*Each national party committee has its own separate contribution limit.  For example, the national senatorial and congressional committees of both major parties have separate limits from the DNC and RNC.

$109,500 per account per year
*Each national party committee has special accounts for:
(1) HQ Building Account
(2) Election Recount, Challenge and Legal Account
(3) Presidential Convention Account (DNC and RNC only)
PAC $5,000 per election for multicandidate PACs
$2,900 per election for non-multicandidate PACs
$5,000 per year for all PACs Unlimited $5,000 per year (combined) for multicandidate PACs
$10,000 per year (combined) for non-multicandidate PACs
$15,000 per year for multicandidate PACs
$36,500 per year for non-multicandidate PACs
$45,000 per year per account for multicandidate PACs
$109,500 per year per account for non-multicandidate PACs

The key contribution limit adjustments of note in the above chart include:

  • A $100 adjustment upward for individual donors giving to candidate committees – moving from a $2,800 per election limit for the 2020 cycle to $2,900 for the 2022 cycle.  This adjust means that individuals may now give up to $5,800 per candidate per cycle for candidates participating in both primary and general elections.
  • A $1,000 adjustment upward for individual donors giving to national party committee main accounts – moving from $35,500 per year for the 2020 cycle to $36,500 for the 2022 cycle.
  • A $3,000 adjustment upward for individual donors giving to national party committee special accounts – moving from $106,500 per year for the 2020 cycle to $109,500 for the 2022 cycle.


Three New Commissioners Join FEC as Busy 2021 Looms

On December 18, 2020, three new Commissioners were officially sworn in as members of the Federal Election Commission (FEC or Commission), restoring the agency’s quorum and its ability to conduct business for the first time since June of 2020.  The appointees – Ms. Shana Broussard, Mr. Sean Cooksey, and Mr. Allen Dickerson – were nominated by President Trump earlier this year and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on December 9th.  After months without a voting quorum, the FEC will now be able to commence its core regulatory and enforcement functions on matters of campaign finance and elections, including issuing advisory opinions, promulgating and implementing regulations, and taking formal action in enforcement matters.

For the first time in roughly three years, the panel will be at a full slate of six Commission members. The newest appointees include one Democrat and two Republicans with differing backgrounds and viewpoints on the role of the Commission and the appropriate reach of federal campaign finance and election law.  Shana Broussard, the newest Democrat Commissioner, fills the seat previously held by former Commissioner Ann Ravel and holds a term that extends through April 30, 2023.  Ms. Broussard served as counsel to Commissioner Steven Walther prior to her appointment and also has previous public service experience as an Attorney Advisor for the Internal Revenue Service and Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans, LA.  Commissioner Cooksey – one of the new Republican additions to the Commission – joins the agency after serving as General Counsel to U.S. Senator Josh Hawley and Deputy General Counsel to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.  Prior to his government service, Mr. Cooksey worked as an attorney in private practice focusing on appellate and constitutional law.  Commissioner Dickerson – the second of the new Republican members of the Commission – joins the agency after a long stint as legal director for the Institute for Free Speech and its nationwide First Amendment litigation practice.  Mr. Dickerson also has background as a Judge Advocate in the US Army Reserve and as a private practice litigator.  

Due to its longstanding lack of a quorum, the FEC currently faces a significant matter backlog with at least – 446 open matters before the agency and 275 staff reports awaiting action.  The beginning of 2021 thus looks to be a busy one for the new Commissioners, as they attempt to clear their docket and set priorities for regulation and enforcement in the dynamic of a Biden administration.   In light of this reality, the Dentons Political Law Team, which regularly represents clients before the FEC in enforcement matters, investigations, audits, advisory opinion requests, and other matters, will monitor the agency’s activities in the coming months and provide regular updates.

2020 Presidential Election: Where Things Stand

November 3rd is nearly two weeks in our rear view mirror – here is what we know. Most major news outlets have called the race for former Vice President Joe Biden, but President Donald Trump has refused to concede, and has filed a string of lawsuits around the country challenging the results of the election. We leave the politics aside and provide you with an overview of where things stand in the certification process in key states, and what is required to happen between now and Inauguration Day by federal law.

Vote Certification – and the Electoral College

Congress enacted the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to set forth a uniform process for states to follow to deliver their electoral votes to Congress after the election. Congress ultimately counts and certifies the results of the Electoral College, this year on January 6th, three days after the new Congress is sworn in on January 3rd. In order for a state’s electors to receive protection that Congress will accept their electors without any questions asked, a state must certify the results of its election by the “safe harbor” deadline of six days before the electors meet to cast their votes. This year, that means that states have until December 8th to receive safe harbor status, as the winning electors will meet to cast their votes for President and Vice President on December 14th.

As of the time of this writing, six states have already certified their electors. It is widely expected that all states will do so before the safe harbor deadline. While there are reports that Republican legislators in some states may try to certify their own slate of electors in conflict with current state law in every state, this is a highly unlikely scenario, and one that likely wouldn’t change the electoral college count such that the results of the election change. We briefly detail the current status of vote certification in a number of swing states below.

Status in Swing States

Arizona

The certification date for Arizona is November 30th. As of the time of this writing, former Vice President Biden maintains a roughly 11,000 vote lead, and most major news outlets have declared him the victor. Arizona has very restrictive recount laws, so there is unlikely to be a recount. The Trump campaign has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the state’s certification of votes.

Georgia

The certification date for Georgia is November 20th. As of the time of this writing, former Vice President Biden maintains a roughly 14,000 vote lead, and most major news outlets have declared him the victor. The Georgia Secretary of State has announced that the state will conduct a hand recount of every ballot cast in the presidential race, and will also conduct a risk-limiting audit to rule out the possibility of fraud or errors. This process has begun as of the time of this publication.

Pennsylvania

The certification date for Pennsylvania is November 23rd. As of the time of this writing, former Vice President Biden maintains a roughly 60,000 vote lead, and most major news outlets have declared him the victor. Biden’s lead is currently too large to trigger an automatic recount, and it is unclear if the Trump campaign would request one. Pennsylvania is the state where the Trump campaign has filed the most lawsuits. Because of one of the lawsuits, the United States Supreme Court ordered mail ballots postmarked by election day but received in the three days following election day to be sequestered. The number of ballots in this category appears to be approximately 10,000. The Trump campaign has also filed a lawsuit seeking to block the state’s certification of votes.

Wisconsin

The certification date for Wisconsin is December 1st. As of the time of this writing, former Vice President Biden maintains a roughly 20,000 vote lead, and most major news outlets have declared him the victor. The Trump campaign has said that it would request a recount, which would need to be completed within 13 days of its commencement under state law.

Abramoff Pleads Guilty to Criminal Lobbying Violation in Landmark Prosecution

Last month, the US Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed multiple criminal charges against well-known lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including a charge that Abramoff violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act (“Act”). According to the US Department of Justice, Abramoff plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and violating the LDA for separate cases. This marks the first ever known prosecution of a lobbyist for a criminal violation of the LDA. Abramoff was previously sentenced to six years in federal prison for mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials, and tax evasion related to lobbying efforts on behalf of Native American casino businesses and tribes.

The DOJ charged Abramoff with knowingly and corruptly failing to register as a lobbyist, as required by the LDA, after being retained for lobbying efforts by a client in the marijuana industry. Specifically, the DOJ alleged that in June of 2017, Abramoff failed to register as a lobbyist for efforts on behalf of the client that involved communications with one or more federal officials, as required by the LDA. The LDA requires, generally, that any person engaged in lobbying efforts with the federal government register as a lobbyist with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives within 45 days of the retention by the client or making the triggering contact. In Abramoff’s case, an FBI undercover agent posed as a potential client seeking assistance with federal lobbying efforts.  Abramoff signed an engagement and met with members of Congress, but failed to register for his efforts.

In a separate, unrelated matter, the DOJ alleged that Abramoff conspired with Marcus Andrade to mislead investors about a proposed new cryptocurrency called AML Bitcoin. The DOJ alleges that Abramoff and Andrade purported to show investors that their crypto-currency would comply with anti-money laundering and ‘know-your-customer’ laws and regulations. In one instance, Andrade and Abramoff hired writers to publish op-eds falsely claiming that NBC had rejected a Super Bowl ad featuring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un yelling at his subordinates for failing to hack the cryptocurrency.

The criminal prosecution against Abramoff for violating the LDA is being viewed as a significant moment that possibly signals new aggressiveness in federal lobbying enforcement. Transparency advocates have long contended that the registration and reporting obligations of the LDA are widely flouted by federal lobbyists, and criticized the DOJ for lack of enforcement in both the civil and criminal context. While it remains to be seen if this is an idiosyncratic prosecution driven by Abramoff’s high profile and past history as a lobbyist, it nevertheless serves as a reminder to companies, firms and individuals engaged in federal lobbying to employ a diligent compliance framework to ensure that the registration and reporting requirements of the LDA are met. The Dentons Political Law Group will continue to provide updates regarding this and other lobbying compliance-related developments.

New social media policies regarding political advertising already changing the 2020 political playbooks

As the national conversation surrounding the role of social media companies in influencing elections continues to heat up in the run-up to the 2020 elections, Twitter and Google have taken drastic and controversial steps to strengthen their internal political advertising policies.

Social media platforms have faced growing scrutiny since the 2016 election, as various investigations have verified that foreign actors exploited weaknesses in their digital advertising rules to spread misinformation through targeted political outreach. In light of these findings, technology companies are under mounting pressure from the public and Congress to push back against the spread of political disinformation through their platforms.

In November, Twitter became the first social media provider to institute a ban on political advertising across its platform. The ban took effect on November 22, following an October 30 announcement from CEO Jack Dorsey and the November 22 release of the full policy to the public. The ban applies to any promoted political advertisements intended to influence elections and ballot measures. Under its new rules, all political advertisements, whether from campaigns, government officials (elected or appointed), PACs or 501(c)(4) groups, that mention specific candidates, elections or legislation will be banned. These restricted sources will also be prohibited from running any paid/promoted advertisements on Twitter’s platform under the political ad ban. Guidance published by Twitter identifies “political content” as any content that includes references to a candidate, political party, government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive or judicial outcome. While candidates and government officials will no longer be able to launch promoted advertisements to targeted audiences on Twitter, there are no restrictions on what individual user accounts can post or share with existing followers. Additionally, any advertisements run by restricted sources that contain references to political content (e.g., appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against political content) are banned under the new policy.

In addition to instituting a blanket ban on political advertisements, Twitter’s new policy seeks to place restrictions on targeted digital advertisements for high-profile social issues, such as climate change, gun control, and abortion. Individuals and groups will no longer be able to target social-issue ads to a user’s zip code or political identification. Instead, targeted advertisements will be restricted to broad geographical zones, such as states. News outlets will be exempted from the advertising ban provided posts/ads do not advocate for a specific political outcome. Organizations (including businesses and 501(c)(3) organizations) and activists will not be completely blocked from running ads on the platform however. Advertisements that focus on broadly defined political causes and social issues will still be permitted from non-restricted sources so long as posts refrain from advocating for/against candidates, elections or legislative proposals.

Google, not to be outdone, announced on November 20 that it would likewise be curtailing how political candidates and organizations are allowed to advertise on its platform moving forward. The new policy, which will take effect on January 6, 2020, does not outright ban certain groups from making political ads like Twitter does, but instead seeks to limits targeted election messaging by political organizations and candidates to three general categories of age, gender and location (down to the postal code level) in the US. This shift in permissible targeting categories contrasts with Google’s current advertising policies, which allows political ad targeting to specific audiences using personal user information such as political affiliation and voting records. Google’s new policy will also prohibit ads containing demonstrably false claims or misleading information that have the potential to undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process. Examples of prohibited ads provided by company officials in this context include communications that falsely claimed that a candidate has died or ads that gave the wrong date for an election, but it is not clear how much further this false content screening mechanism will stretch.  Google does claim, however, that its new policies will not attempt to regulate the veracity of ads containing standard political speech on which opposing political sides may disagree.

While Facebook has refrained from implementing an outright ban on political ads, the company unveiled more stringent disclosure rules for political communications in September. Industry insiders are expecting the company to join Twitter and Google in the near future, however. These self-regulatory efforts by America’s Silicon Valley technology giants are being closely watched by lawmakers and regulators at the federal and state levels as government officials weigh whether and how to wade into the fray over political speech on the Internet. It remains to be seen how effective these self-imposed measures will be at deterring foreign and other bad actors from spreading political disinformation as the first presidential primaries of the 2020 election cycle draw near. The Dentons Political Law Team will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as necessary.

Facebook releases updated disclosure rules for political ads in advance of 2020 elections

In a preemptive effort designed to enhance transparency for the upcoming 2020 elections, Facebook has announced that it will strengthen its digital advertisement program rules for political ads to increase disclosure requirements for advertisers using the platform. The decision comes after months of scrutiny from Congress and growing public concern over the use of Facebook’s platform by foreign actors to spread political misinformation during the course of the 2016 election cycle. 

The 2016 presidential election saw a record amount of digital political advertising across the country, with the majority of spending going toward major technology players such as Facebook and Google. With multiple congressional investigations and the report of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller verifying that foreign actors took advantage of these platforms to spread misinformation via targeted political advertisements leading up to the 2016 election, technology companies are under mounting pressure to take action to combat the spread of misinformation.

With this goal in mind, Facebook’s new digital advertisement review program guidelines will implement more stringent transparency rules for advertisers seeking to purchase ad space on the social media platform. The newly adopted procedures will require advertisers to supply significantly more information about their organization during the purchasing process than what the company has previously required. Moving forward, when securing ad space, advertisers will be required to provide information such as a U.S. street address, phone number, business email and business website matching the listed email – all information that indicates the existence of a legitimate domestic enterprise.

Additionally, Facebook is implementing new disclaimer requirements in order to improve transparency surrounding ‘Paid for by’ disclaimers. Under the company’s new policy, advertisers will be required to provide organizational information that will be used to create an information field – or “i” icon that appears on a posting – and allow site users to confirm that the organizations are legitimate actors. As part of this change, Facebook has also announced new guidelines for advertisers who wish to be certified as a ‘Confirmed Organization’ on the social network. In order to be recognized as the most trusted ‘Confirmed Organization’, advertisers must provide a tax ID number, Federal Election Commission (FEC) ID number, or a government website domain that matches an email ending with a government (.gov) or military (.mil) email line.

While Facebook has taken this first step toward revamping its internal political advertising policies and disclosure requirements, it is difficult to predict the full impact this change will have during the 2020 federal election cycle. Just as digital political advertising and marketing have outpaced the regulatory efforts of federal and state lawmakers across the country, so has it (to a lesser degree) outpaced the transparency and disclosure actions of the private platforms themselves.  Once can likely expect the same in the current cycle, but Facebook’s new policy still represents an important first move by Silicon Valley to dissuade foreign and other bad actors from poisoning the well of political discourse heading into 2020. 

As election season heats up next year, Dentons expects to see more changes to social media and technology companies’ digital advertisement policies and will endeavor to keep our readership posted.

Partisan Gerrymandering Upheld by U.S. Supreme Court

On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court decided Rucho v. Common Cause, a highly-anticipated case stemming from legal challenges to the purported partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts in Maryland and North Carolina. 

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court held that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Consequently, gerrymandering can only be addressed or resolved through action from Congress or individual states, and the drawing of highly partisan legislative districts, which have increasingly raised political ire in recent years, can no longer be challenged in the courts solely on political grounds.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing electoral district boundaries in a way that gives one party a distinct advantage over its rivals. Gerrymandering is by no means a new phenomenon – its roots trace back to the first US congressional elections.  In recent years, however, both political parties have taken advantage of control over various state legislatures to craft electoral maps strengthening their opportunity for political success in future years.  In the Rucho case, the districts at issue were the most recently-drawn congressional boundaries in the states of North Carolina and Maryland.  In North Carolina, litigants challenged the legitimacy of Republican-drawn districts that disadvantaged Democrat prospects in federal elections.  Similarly, in Maryland, litigants objected to the imbalance of congressional lines drawn by state Democrats to the disadvantage of Republicans.

Despite the balanced posture of the case, the Court’s majority leaned on precedent and the inherently political question before it when crafting its opinion. According to the majority, there is longstanding precedent recognizing the power of state legislatures to draw electoral districts – an inherently political task.  As such, in his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts argued that partisanship is allowed to play a role in the drawing of congressional districts – indeed this was the Founders’ intent.  In turn, the Court asserted that any attempt by courts to interject themselves into the process of weighing levels of partisanship in gerrymandering cases would inherently mean judges would be arbitrarily deciding how much partisanship is too much rather than resolving such disputes based upon clear, manageable and politically-neutral standards and limited and precise rationales. 

The rulings of the lower courts in North Carolina and Maryland, grounded in rubrics that the Court viewed as non-justiciable, were thus vacated.  It is noteworthy that the majority distinguished partisan gerrymandering from gerrymandering that involves population inequality or racial discrimination – both of which the Court has previously ruled as unconstitutional.  Ultimately, any partisan gerrymandering disputes can only be resolved politically through state legislation, state constitutional amendments, or Congress.

While the Court’s opinion expressed frustration over the excessive partisanship driving redistricting in the current political environment, the majority found that the judiciary is simply not the proper governmental branch to find solutions to the political issue of partisan gerrymandering.  Moving forward, Rucho puts the ball firmly in the courts of the people’s elected legislators to address the question of partisan gerrymandering.  Some states — Florida, Michigan, and Colorado, e.g. –  have passed amendments to their state constitutions limiting the practice. Others like Delaware and Iowa have passed laws through their state legislatures prohibiting favoritism in redistricting. Congress also now has the opportunity to address the issue through legislative means. 

Dentons will continue to monitor these efforts moving forward and provide insight on how such efforts will impact future elections at the federal, state and local levels around the country.  

FEC increases contribution limits for 2019-2020

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) updated the federal contribution limits for the 2019-2020 election. The new per election limits were effective January 1, 2019. Below is a chart that explains the new limits on each donor.

The chart above illustrates the new increased contribution limits to the respective donors. Individuals can now contribute $2,800 per election to a candidate, an increase of $100 from the 2018 cycle. This means that individuals may now give up to $5,600 per candidate per cycle (combined to include both the primary and general election limits). Due to changes in inflation, these limits are increased every odd-numbered year to balance out differences.

The contribution limit to national party committees can now contribute $35,500 per year, an increase of $1,600 from last year. The annual max contributions to the national party committee accounts have been increased to $106,500, an increase of $4,800.

Note that traditional PAC contributions are not indexed for inflation. This means that PAC contributions remain the same from 2018.

New federal court ruling shakes up disclosure norms in the federal independent expenditure space

In a decision likely to throw further uncertainty into the world of campaign finance disclosure rules, an Obama-appointed judge on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia recently invalidated the Federal Election Commission’s (“FEC”) regulation regarding the disclosure of donors by organizations making federal independent expenditure communications.  In light of the ruling, organizations, including 501(c)(4) social welfare entities, seeking to spend money on independent expenditures involving federal candidates between now and the November midterms should be mindful of the shifting legal ground beneath them and the likelihood of increased scrutiny into their FEC disclosure filings moving forward.

The existing FEC regulation at issue – 11 C.F.R. § 109.10(e)(1)(vi) – requires organizations that make independent expenditures in excess of $250 in a calendar year to disclose the identity of donors who gave over $200 for the purpose of furthering the reported independent expenditures.  Independent expenditures are communications that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate.  According to Judge Beryl Howell’s decision, the current iteration of the 11 C.F.R. § 109.10(e)(1)(vi) “blatantly undercuts” the overall congressional goal of disclosure due to the fact that it only requires organizations to report donors who gave for the particular independent expenditure being reported.  Thus, if donors gave contributions for general independent expenditures, or even if donors gave contributions earmarked for a specific independent expenditure plan but not a particular expenditure, such donors would not need to be disclosed on the independent expenditure reports.

In light of Judge Howell’s ruling, the FEC now has 45 days to issue regulations that more closely align with her understanding of the purpose of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 – greater transparency.  The existing regulation will remain in effect for the 45 days, so organizations spending money on independent expenditures for the next 45 will be subject to those rules.  In the interim period, there is no need to amend past disclosure reports.

Given the significance of this ruling and the mixed reception it has received among lawyers concerned about First Amendment and administrative deference concerns, there will likely be an appeal from Crossroads GPS, an intervenor in the case and one of the most active 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations in the political arena.  It also remains to be seen how the FEC will respond to the court’s order and how it choose to enforce a new regulation that might jeopardize the anonymity of good faith donors to politically-active nonprofits. The Dentons Political Law Team will continue to monitor the legal issues and developments surrounding non-profit disclosure rules, but in the meantime please consult legal counsel should your organization be considering playing in the independent expenditure space.