When Good Laws Go Bad

It’s become a recurring theme that, in some states, the laws intended to protect our democracy from the harms of corruption inappropriately get applied to the work we do. Most often, it happens because someone might not be aware of the ways in which ActBlue amplifies the voices of so many of you to make campaign finance—and politics—work for the people, not just the entitled few. We sometimes get lumped in with all of the bad money in politics, and an otherwise well intentioned law prevents us from increasing participation in democracy. It was just such a law that we recently encountered in Rhode Island.

We’ve been helping Democrats get elected in Rhode Island through a couple of cycles now, but that has required making special arrangements with each campaign individually. While we are glad to have been able to help those campaigns who engaged with us, we haven’t been able to help everyone, and the additional administrative burden associated with those arrangements made online engagement clunkier than it should be. That’s why we were excited when, after intensive legal research to try to solve this problem, we discovered that actually the letter of the law in Rhode Island would permit ActBlue to help all Democrats without any kind of arrangement at all, special or otherwise. If the people wanted it, we could do it.

To confirm that our reading of the law was accurate, we requested an opinion from the Board of Elections, working closely with their staff over the course of months. After long hours of consultation with the staff and providing public testimony before the Board (which required finding an attorney to sponsor me for special admission to the Rhode Island Bar!), the Board ultimately voted to maintain the status quo; it was the safe vote, but it failed to address how the law must interact with new modes of fundraising unleashed by the Internet. And in the process, it appears that the Board may have endorsed a reading of the law which eviscerated the limit on individual contributions. They inadvertently permitted individuals to contribute unlimited amounts to campaigns as long as the contributions first go through a series of PACs, much like the loophole in Nevada that recently required new legislation in order to clean up.

But the real harm in this case isn’t yet another major loophole in Rhode Island law. And the real loser in this case isn’t ActBlue. The Board’s well-intentioned, yet ill-advised action hurts the people of Rhode Island most, who are less able to make their voices heard and to participate fully in the selection and election of their representatives in government. It is that much more difficult now for candidates to activate their supporters online, which means a few more candidates will decide to rely on big campaign donors instead. It is that much more difficult now for supporters to organize themselves to let their preferred candidates know that they’re willing to fight, which means a few more first-time candidates will decide not to run. It is that much more difficult now for ActBlue and the people of Rhode Island to make politics work for everyone.

We’ll keep fighting for the people of Rhode Island and of every state in the nation. With your help, we’ll get the word out about how important the work you do with ActBlue is to ensuring we can all participate fully in electing our leaders. And one day we won’t have to worry about well-intentioned mistakes.

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