February 20, 2008  ·  Lessig

A bunch have written asking whether one can consistently oppose taking money from “PACs” while accepting contributions through ActBlue — a PAC. In my view, there is a difference, since every dollar given is directed to a candidate directly by an individual, and the problem with “PACs” is that it allows a single entity to leverage a number of donations. (Compare: It is not legal to take money from corporations. But if you have a PayPal account, you get a check from PayPal — a corporation — whenever you withdraw the money. But obviously, there’s no problem in that.)

But no reason to create confusion, so as we move through the alpha/beta of our site, this may be an issue to reconsider.

I’ve spoken some more to the people who decided we would use ActBlue. The FEC has permitted ActBlue to function as a payment processor — e.g., exactly like PayPal. Any contribution through ActBlue is recorded as a contribution from the person making it, not ActBlue. So, no, in the relevant sense, ActBlue is not a PAC.

  • Matt Stoller

    I consult for Actblue.

    Actblue happens to be a pass through entity/PAC for legal purposes, but it is not only NOT a special interest, it is an important democratizing tool for politics and one of the many parts of the answer to fixing corruption. Allowing large numbers of people to donate to and raise money for political campaigns in a transparent manner creates a different fundraising base for people who want to run for office. It’s easy to run for office if you have 100 rich friends, it’s not so easy if you don’t. But now at least, if you can find 1000 people who are excited and have credit cards, you can run. That has shifted the kinds of people within the Democratic Party who can run, and it has radically expanded the number of citiziens who raise.

  • http://calitics.com Brian Leubitz

    I have used ActBlue’s services for a while now. ActBlue makes it possible for anybody to raise money for political campaigns. It allows the people to help fundraise for their candidates. Their can be no better democratic (small d) tool.

  • JR Lentini

    If you’ve read “Animal Farm,” you might remember this passage:

    “A bird’s wing, comrades,” he said, “is an organ of propulsion and not of manipulation. It should therefore be regarded as a leg. The distinguishing mark of man is the hand, the instrument with which he does all his mischief.”

    -Snowball, Animal Farm, Chapter III

    ActBlue is an organ of propulsion, not of manipulation. That’s the distinction that matters.

  • asdf

    I’d go further and say I never donate to political campaigns precisely because I don’t want to be on their mailing lists and hit up for more donations. Right now, donations under $200 don’t have to be publicly disclosed, which I guess is ok, since that’s a level signifying a small donation from an ordinary citizen. The obvious next step is to also not disclose the source of the donation to the recipient.

    The FEC should set up its own Act Blue-like service, and mandate that ALL donations go through it. If I want to donate $200 to Prof. Lessig’s campaign, I send a check or make a web payment to the FEC, saying where it is supposed to go. The FEC checks my eligibility to donate (maybe a $50 maximum should apply if I don’t actually live in Prof. Lessig’s congressional district), checks that I haven’t gone past total contribution limits across multiple candidates, etc. It then bundles up all the donations and sends Prof. Lessig a check every 2 weeks, for the donations that have come in. He never finds out who the donors were or the actual donation amounts. Maybe they tell him the number of donations in addition to the total amount (that allows computing the average size), but maybe they don’t even tell him that.

    All donations over $200 should be banned instead of being disclosed.

  • Andy B

    I’d be careful… most people who follow Larry’s work should know better than assuming the public can tell the difference.

    It would be very easy for an opponent to run and ad, distribute literature, or bring up in a debate the fact that you take money from ActBlue, which is a PAC. While you spend your time trying to explain why ‘this is different’ people have already written you off as a hypocrite. Then when you’ve finally explained why ActBlue doesn’t count as a PAC you’ll start getting explanations of why all the other PACs “aren’t really PACs” either. The issue then gets muddy beyond repair and you lose a key plank of your platform.

    Larry, if you do decide to run (I’ve already donated so I hope you do!) I would highly recommend searching for an alternative way to raise money that is not organized as a PAC. Politics is about 90% perception and using ActBlue is a big perception risk. There are a lot of people who scheme campaign strategies for a living – they will find a way to use it against you. I support ActBlue and conceptually agree with the previous commenters, but I don’t think it wise to run an anti-PAC campaign while taking money from one.

  • Dave L

    I very much agree that ActBlue is a perception risk. I had never visited the site before, and clicked on About. The first sentence begins “ActBlue is a Federal PAC…”. This is the sort of thing that cannot be explained in a campaign. Which I very much hope you will undertake.

  • Sahar

    Remember, this is a Democratic primary. I think primary voters (which are usually the most informed ones) know what ActBlue is. It’s the default way to raise money from individual donors online. I really doubt it’ll be a problem.

  • http://fullofwin.com Dan Linehan

    If ActBlue is a PAC (which it says it is on its website) then you aren’t against all PACs.

  • Chris Peterson

    Professor-

    I agree that ActBlue is not a PAC in the “bad PAC” sense.

    However, as Sahar writes, this cannot be explained in a campaign. If ActBlue calls themself a PAC, and fall under the technical definition of a PAC, then they are a PAC in the eys of the public and the media and of your inevitable opponents.

    You need to either
    *Qualify your sentiments (not against PACs, but against special interests–a difficult and subtle distinction)
    *Take money from somewhere else.

    ActBlue is a great organization that allows great grassroots financing. But this is the sort of thing that could be easily distorted. You’re an Obama man. Remember the voting present fiasco?

    I want you succeed. I’ve joined all the support organizations. I want your brand of academic, intellectual, analytic, thoughtful politics in the system.

    But remember Eisner, when you said that the Supreme Court wanted a litigator, not an academic? This is sort of like that. I do not mean to sound condescending, but I hope that you will be able to perform the difficult dance that allows one to be politically viable without compromising key issues. It can be done, and I believe in you.

  • http://josephhall.org/nqb2/ joe

    I hope you see this, Larry… the filing deadline for candidacy is very soon. CD-12 straddles San Mateo and San Francisco counties. San Mateo’s deadline is Monday: http://insideelections.shapethefuture.org/2008/02/20/how-the-special-congressional-election-works/

  • Liam Keane

    While many of your current early supporters likely understand that ActBlue is serving solely as a payment processor, I agree with Andy, Dave, and Chris that it is too much of a risk simply because of the perception.

    This article from November about the confusion caused when John Edwards had used the site is an example of the problem. Although the FEC allowed for ActBlue to be regarded as a ‘processing agent’, the fact that it was unclear what would have happened as recently as November is troubling. If you have to defend contributions using language that sounds like your defense is based on a technicality, the public may be skeptical. (See this search for documents from the FEC Advisory Opinion)

    And with ActBlue taking 3.95% processing fee (2.45% to credit card companies, 1.5% to AQ/ActBlue), is it really that good? PayPal and Amazon FPS are both 2.9% + $0.30.

    Instead consider an alternative:
    Kottke’s Dropcash.com (uses PayPal)
    chipin.com (PayPal or Facebook)
    buxfer.com (uses Amazon’s Flexible Payments Service)
    revolutionmoney.com (also on Facebook)

    Professional services:
    Kintera Inc (used by Obama)
    Convio (used by the Dean campaign)
    Auburn Quad (powers Act Blue, used by Deval Patrick)

    Again, in an actual campaign, your opponent may purposely try to confuse the public and as such being even remotely associated with any PAC is dangerous.

  • Brutha

    To make a grassroots movement it is important to be as clear as possible in your message. The goal isn’t to win one democratic primary but to start that movement.

    Not using ActBlue is more authentic in regard to your message. Authenticity in turn leads to people talking about you.

  • Velvet Elvis

    John Edwards and Dennis Kuchinach, two candidates also known for spurning Big Money, raised tons via Act Blue. It’s a vital part of the netroots ecosystem. It’s more than just a payment processor. It combines the democratic potential of Web 2.0 social media with actual grassroots fundraising, letting individual bloggers launch their own fundraising efforts for the candidates of their choice.

    Not using it as a primary fundraising tool is one thing, but refusing to take donations raised via Act Blue would be suicidal.

    Captcha: GOODWIN

  • Tim Cannon

    There is clearly a valid distinction, but my guess is that it doesn’t matter- opponents will point to it as an inconsistency whether or not it really is. Sound bytes will be aired, headlines will be printed, and uninformed Americans will simply hear that Larry Lessig accepted money from a PAC.

  • Marc

    Larry isn’t taking money from ActBlue any more than Clinton, Obama, or McCain is taking money from Visa (well, maybe some of them are, but you know what I mean). All he needs to do is explain that according to the FEC’s own rules, the contributions are reported as coming from the donor. Check out http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/pacgot.asp?strID=C00401224&Cycle=2008
    Not a dime has gone from ActBlue to any candidate. In fact, all that’s there is what looks like refunds recorded incorrectly.

    If you need a sound bite, it’s not hard: “The FEC shows that ActBlue has not given me any money. If the FEC reports that ActBlue or any other PAC has contributed to me, I will refund that money immediately,”

    That said, in this race, who’s going to call Larry on it? This isn’t going to be the 2004 presidential race, with a Rovian opponent willing to twist the truth to win at all costs. While I agree it makes sense to consider the risk, in the end it appears pretty small and not worth worrying about.

  • http://www.arkansawyer.com/wordpress/ John A Arkansawyer

    This is an opportunity for you to refine your views and craft a policy.

    The problem is PACs or something like them are useful tools for people in our imperfect system to support candidates. Short of complete public financing or some other overarching reform, I claim a blanket ban on PAC money is likelier to relatively empower those with more to spend and disempower those with less. I don’t believe that’s a good result, particularly right now, as ActBlue and similar groups are improving the balance of power.

    If the way ActBlue operates is okay by you, then accepting money via their mechanism is the right thing to do. It also carries a political risk, as it opens up a possible attack against you in a vital area.

    One solution would be to get together a couple of former or current Congressional staffer skilled in crafting legislation and work up a draft bill which legitimizes the method ActBlue uses to pass money from citizens to candidates. Make that bill a campaign asset, and in particular, announce that you’ll only take PAC money that meets the standards you propose to make law.

    PACs are the form of the problem, not the essence. Get to the heart of the matter.

  • Chris Hardin

    I think the concern here is overblown. It’s so simple: Larry Lessig isn’t taking money from ActBlue any more than he’s taking money from my credit card company. It’s my money he’s getting, not ActBlue’s. This kind of nonsense might arise in a general election, but the general election is not the issue–it’s the primary. I doubt the level of discourse in the primary would sink to that level.

    If there were a convenient alternative, it might make sense to switch. But I don’t think much will come from this. If anything, the accusation will be that Lessig is bankrolled by people not in his district. But I see that as a strength: people across the country think his candidacy is important enough to support it.

  • Rob Van Dyk

    Is there a distinction between Fundraising to run a campaign and accepting $$$ from individuals who have gained some benefit from literature and work that you’ve done? I am sure writing Free Culture and Code Version 2.0 were labors of love, but would it compromise your values to accept donations for the effort you made to write these books? You could then report that as a business income, pay taxes on it, and fund your campaign from your own private money.

    If you were open about it, you could easily publish numbers for “Donations earned from readers of your books” on your website it and update it periodically. You could cap the amount per donation at $50, which would be more than a reasonable amount if somebody had chosen to pick your books up in the bookstore instead of downloading them gratis from your website. You wouldn’t know where the money is coming from.

    And when you are accused of using nefarious purposes to raise money, you could reply by saying that your campaigning has been done legally with money you’ve earned from customers of your books, and that you paid taxes on that money.

    This would be similar to an idea which I had about a year ago to monetize the Creative Commons and create a balance of benefits for creators and users called Open Publication.

  • Tim Sweeney

    To the comments that there are “good” and “bad” PACs and “special interest groups” I say balderdash:

    Collective organization of individuals for political purposes, no matter what the purpose, weakens the fundamental connection between the individual and their act of exercising political will. It relieves people of the burden of having to think about the individuals representing them, and instead merely cling to vaguely defined ideas and put the hard task of finding real people to support their concepts in the hands of the group’s own leadership — which always has its own agenda.

    It is a layer of indirection that is unnecessary in this day and age. It is introduced noise.

    As a means to come to consensus within a group as regards to position and platform? Absolutely.

    As an intermediary and clearinghouse where the support of an individual human being’s free will can become overshadowed or falsified by money, deception or social pressure? Never.

    Let us send our support to you and cut out the indirection before it begins.

  • http://www.arkansawyer.com/wordpress/ John A Arkansawyer

    Tim Sweeney, you say:

    Collective organization of individuals for political purposes, no matter what the purpose, weakens the fundamental connection between the individual and their act of exercising political will

    and I disagree. I’d say that sort of organization is fundamental to democracy (as I know it).

  • Tim Cannon

    @Marc: Obviously, if you or I were in charge of the corporate media the sound bites would be what you describe. We’re not, though. In reality, there’s no guarantee that the sound bites are strictly true. They can usually get away with sort of true.

    You’re probably right that no-one will call Lessig on this, but if I were running the campaign I don’t think I’d just ignore things like this because it’s not a big race.

    Whatever, you’re probably right that it’s worth the risk.

  • Shane O.

    Whether ActBlue is a PAC or not is largely irrelevant. Even if ActBLUE _is_ a PAC, if PACs wish to invest in and support those that wish to abolish them, let them.

    The Libertarians have faced this dilemma for years — can’t take money from a corrupt system you wish to change, yet without it, you can’t get elected to change that system. Dooming yourself to defeat for noble reasons is not a productive exercise for anyone involved.

    Best of luck in your (hopefully) upcoming campaign. You have my support.