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Our mission is to increase participation and transparency in the fundraising process, and we work hard to make sure our features match that goal. No matter how you measure it–3,000,000 donors, more than a quarter billion dollars sent to Democrats–it’s been a success. Here’s one example:

A while back we noticed that mobile web traffic was exploding, so we built a mobile donation form that would make it easy for people to donate with their phone. We also realized that data entry, already a pain on a regular computer, would be even more difficult on a phone. Long story short, we made our mobile form play nice with ActBlue Express, a feature that allows donors to create a profile so they don’t have to retype their info every time they want to give.

The combination proved extremely potent. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of users with an ActBlue Express account, and the mobile conversion rate has grown steadily. ActBlue is hardly the only political entity out there with a quick donate option or a mobile form. But we’re different in one important respect: we provide these tools to every campaign that accepts donations through our site. They’re available to you whether you’re a state senator or a federal candidate, whether you’re a donor who gives $25 or $2,500.

Why does that matter? If you follow politics, you’ve probably seen something about Democratic discomfort with the Citizens United decision. As Republican SuperPACs ramp up for 2012, Democratic campaigns are worried that they won’t be able to keep up with the Adelsons. Donors, meanwhile, are concerned about entrenching a system they dislike. ActBlue is a way out of that dilemma. Candidates don’t have to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage vis a vis Republicans. Donors can give quickly and easily, without embracing GOP tactics.

By taking a settled piece of campaign finance–the ability of individuals to support campaigns–and updating it for the digital age, we’ve massively increased participation and transparency in fundraising. Oh, and sent nearly $100,000,000 to Democrats this cycle.

That’s what we’re here to do.

We have another milestone to celebrate around the office: 2 million donations! And we got there only a year and a half after we hit 1 million. Averaged out over that period, we're talking 55,000 donations a month during some of slowest months of the election cycle.

Here's why it matters: our infrastructure is what turns grassroots passion into political results. While the "enthusiasm gap" was making headlines across the country, Democratic donors flocked to ActBlue to connect with their chosen candidates. Our infrastructure enabled the Wisconsin Recall efforts to demonstrate their fundraising oomph in real time, and helped labor issues find their way back into national discourse. Today that conversation is in a dramatically different place than it was a few months ago.

But 2012 is where the rubber meets the road. It's our transparent, participatory architecture against the small and increasingly shadowy world of Republican fundraising unleashed by Citizen's United.

2 million grassroots donations or five guys writing blank checks: which system would you rather have?

On Wednesday, the Washington Post broke the news that the American Action Network, a Republican "charitable organization" along the lines of American Crossroads GPS, was financed entirely by 11 checks, with 82% of its funding coming from just three donors.

AAN and Crossroads GPS are not required to disclose donor information and can protect donors from any blowback that might result from their decision to influence the political process or the specific ways in which AAN/Crossroads GPS employ their money to accomplish that goal. As a result, donors get to have their cake and eat it too: they're largely invisible to the American voter, but highly influential within the small community of policymakers that make legislative decisions. It's an appealing proposition.

There are a number of significant downsides to this arrangement, however. Before I get into them, I'd like to be clear: there's no problem with giving money to political candidates. There's no problem with giving a lot of money to political candidates. There is a problem with giving undisclosed money to political candidates. 

At the most basic level, disclosure is a mental shortcut for voters. It's a way for them to consider the source, to divine what interests believe supporting this candidate is in their interest. If that information isn't available, it undermines democratic accountability. If voters can't get access to any information about who is backing whom, their role in the political process becomes little more than a patina of consent on top of a structure they are prevented from informing themselves about.

So you have a situation in which, over the long term, rational actors are undermining the very system they depend on. Politicians need to finance their campaigns and want to outraise their opponents. Their donors want to insulate themselves from the consequences of their speech. The tragic irony is that in doing so, they are sawing the foundations of a functioning democracy–information and accountability–out from underneath themselves. Left to its own devices, the emerging situation becomes a race to the bottom: who can raise the most money while revealing the least information about its source. It's not hard to see how that worsens what Prof. Larry Lessig calls "institutional corruption," and ultimately paralyzes our government. 

That's why what we do here at ActBlue is so important. Our platform gives small donors a stake in the process and enables them to make themselves felt in major races, while also preserving the transparency that's key to a stable democracy. That transparency, in turn, lets donors assess the impact of their donations in aggregate, which makes them more likely to give again. In short, our virtuous cycle counteracts the vicious cycle kickstarted by Citizens United. 

Recently a couple of stories broke about attempts to bring disclosure back into the political fundraising process. The first was about a draft executive order that will make it harder for federal contractors to use campaign finance vehicles like American Crossroads GPS to support candidates without disclosing that fact. The second article covers DCCC chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen's (D-MD) suit against the FEC as part of an attempt to get that very same group (Crossroads GPS) to disclose its donors. 

Neither article mentions the larger context:

In 2010, a Republican filibuster doomed the DISCLOSE act in the Senate. The DISCLOSE act was a response to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v FEC, and would've enacted the disclosure requirements explicitly called for by Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion. Republicans killed the bill because they knew disclosure would limit the amount of money they could raise through vehicles like Crossroads GPS. There are plenty of corporations out there that support Republicans, but not all of them are looking to be Target

With the Senate deadlocked, the FEC seemed like another route for protecting disclosure. Unfortunately, it's also paralyzed. By law, the FEC is composed of 3 Democratic and 3 Republican comissioners. As in the Senate, the Republican members of the FEC are hostile to anything that might increase disclosure and bring transparency into the system. So the FEC remains deadlocked (for more on exactly how/why this is happening, see the link above).

That context is important because, when the legislative and regulatory routes are closed down by Republican obstruction, only the courts and executive branch remain. Any right-wing vitriol directed against these measures that doesn't acknowledge the GOP's role in closing off all other routes is an attempt to deceive the audience.  

The issue of disclosure is of critical importance to our democracy. Think of it this way: speech, as most of us understand it, is associated with identifiable voices. Accordingly, if money is speech, we need to know who is speaking. When that link breaks down, it's hard for voters–and the reporters they depend on–to tell what interests are moving through our political process. The advertisements run by Mom 'n Pop Apple Pie Shop could be a underwritten by money from Big Pie, and there'd be no way for anyone to know. Ultimately, there's no way to make an informed decision about who to vote for if you don't and can't know who's backing them.

One option is to take money out of politics, but I'm not sure there's an effective way to use politics to keep money out of politics. If you accept the proposition that interest groups can affect political outcomes, then it seems only natural that they'd work to ensure their main avenue for exerting that influence isn't cut off by an act of Congress. Even if you're willing to assume a perfect piece of campaign finance legislation, you still run into the problem that the law is constantly evolving. A decision down the road that couldn't possibly have been forseen can punch a hole through even the most well-crafted campaign finance law. In fact, we just saw that very thing happen with the Citizens United decision that undermined years of precedent and opened huge gaps in McCain-Feingold. 

That reality is why ActBlue is so important. We're taking the most settled aspect of campaign finance law (the right of individuals to give to candidates) and using it as a way to demonstrate that small donors can have a powerful voice in our politics. By disclosing those donations, we're working to remove the stigma of political giving and make it an easy and regular part of American life. In the end, we're working to restore the very confidence in our political system that Republicans are actively undermining in search of an ever larger, ever less accountable grip on our political system.

Guest post by Steve Gold, General Counsel at ActBlue

Tie votes split 3-3 along party lines* have become par for the course at the Federal Election Comission (FEC), which requires a four vote majority to take any action. In the latest deadlock, the FEC failed to take up the task of making rules to comply with last year's Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The result has been increasing uncertainty about campaign finance rules, as well as a Wild West environment where Sean Hannity is permitted to use his position as host of a radio program (paid for by Clear Channel Communications) to openly solicit contributions (.pdf) for a Republican candidate.

Following the Citizens United decision that struck down several campaign finance regulations related to corporate speech, the FEC needed to officially remove these regulations from the books through a formal rulemaking process. They attempted to begin that process late last month.

The Democratic commissioners offered a proposal (.pdf) suggesting that the public be allowed to weigh in on whether the FEC should also implement new regulations to fill in the gaps created by the Supreme Court's decision that corporations could run political ads. Should the public have a say as to whether current disclosure rules require something more than disclaimers like, "Paid for by Americans for Mom and Apple Pie" on political ads run by shell entities created by corporate interests? The Republican commissioners said no, accusing the Democratic commissioners of holding the process of eliminating the defunct regulations hostage to their quest for more regulation of speech.

Who is at fault? Observers of the FEC have long argued that the Republican commissioners are stonewalling any effort at enforcing the law. Republican commissioners and their supporters have begun firing back, saying that everyone agrees these old regulations must be taken off the books, and if the Democratic commissioners would leave it at that there would be no deadlock. After the old regulations are struck from the books, Republicans say the new regulations sought by the Democratic comissioners could be taken up in a separate rulemaking process.

It's an insincere position for many reasons, not the least of which is the Republican commissioners' deeply-held belief that there should be no such additional regulation; one GOP commissioner was quoted as saying, "The last thing we need is even more regulation." Even if the newly sought regulations were included in a separate rulemaking process, the Republican commissioners have signaled they would again vote as a bloc to prevent the process from going forward. The Republican commissioners are hiding behind their anti-regulatory ideology as an excuse to deny the public an opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights.

There is no harm in leaving the old regulations on the books. Eventually, the regulations need to be taken off of the books, but that's merely a housekeeping matter. When the Supreme Court overruled the regulations in question the FEC immediately (a year ago now) issued a statement saying it would not seek to enforce them, a position that they have abided by. The feigned urgency of removing these regulations is a symbol of the Republican commissioners' desire to deregulate our political system and nothing more; as the same GOP commissioner put it, this is a rare opportunity to shrink the Code of Federal Regulations, as though the existence of a regulation is reason enough to abolish it. In contrast, the Republican commissioners' vote to block necessary new regulations comes with a substantial cost: it leaves corporations free to game the system of existing disclosure requirements in order to clandestinely impact our elections. We saw Target attempt to do so in Minnesota last year, and other corporations that we haven't found out about yet (and maybe never will) surely did the same.

Disclosure is the lifeblood of our campaign finance laws. There is a clear need to adjust the campaign finance disclosure regime in response to the introduction of corporations into the campaign finance business, courtesy of the Supreme Court. The FEC, with three Republican commissioners dead set against any new regulation, appears unable to meet this challenge. What to do about their inability to act will be the topic of a panel I am planning to moderate entitled, "The FEC: Friend or Foe?" at this year's Netroots Nation convention June 16-19 in Minneapolis. A group of experts and practitioners before the FEC will discuss what's causing the deadlock and how to address it. If you'll be at Netroots Nation, keep an eye out for the panel; and if you aren't yet planning to attend, hopefully I've convinced you to stop by and find out the rest of the story.

*By law, the FEC is composed of three Democratic commissioners and three Republican commissioners.

In a pair of articles for the New York Times, Michael Luo delves into the role that anonymous donors are playing in the 2010 elections. Oddly, given his subject matter, he doesn't address the ways in which anonymity conditions what we are willing to say and how we say it.

Anyone who has glanced at a comment thread in the last ten years knows that anonymity and vitriol are intimately linked. Anonymous speakers are insulated from the consequences of their words, and that disconnect inevitably leads to harsher speech. Things we wouldn't say to a stranger on the street are happily tossed around in chat rooms and on forums.

That occurs because anonymity means less accountability: speech by unknown speakers can't rebound to their detriment, though it can damage both the target and the means through which that message was conveyed. That, in turn, incentivizes nastier messages conveyed through disposable conduits. In internet lingo, a flame war started by someone with an anonymous or misleading handle can damage its target, and the reputation of the forum as a whole long before it hurts the author.

These habits have their analogues in our politics. The astonishing growth and success (h/t CRP) of right-wing outside groups this cycle is about damaging Democrats through what are ultimately expendable conduits. Speaking through the ads aired by these organizations, GOP donors are able to elide not one, but two questions: who are you, and what does this ad mean if your guy wins?

Anonymity is the guarantor of security in both cases. It ensures the first question goes unanswered, and prevents the press from doing much more than guesswork when it comes to the second. When a harsh ad debuts, the donor needn't worry about reporters asking them whether they endorse the content. Any politician who benefits from the ad has enough room to distance himself from its content, during the campaign and afterward.

In short, the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act didn't just enable unlimited spending by anonymous donors. These groups–if they or their equivalents persist after election day–will slowly lead us down the path toward politics-as-flame-war.

Guest post by Steve Gold, General Counsel, ActBlue

Commenting in a post on Facebook recently about Target shareholders' demands for a review of the company's political contributions policy, CREDO wrote:

This is really promising. If we can bring BOTH shareholder and consumer pressure on corporations that use their deep pockets to support right wing candidates, there is a chance to limit the damage of corporate influence in elections. And then we can pass a constitutional amendment making it clear that corporations do not have the rights of persons.

This is a great story, and there has been plenty of great work done on this issue, by CREDO as well as MoveOn.org and others. As everyone interested in politics knows by now, Target's contribution to an anti-gay Republican candidate for governor of Minnesota was made possible by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizen's United v. FEC. The Brennan Center in particular has done amazing work on the issue of corporate political speech and warned specifically about the dangers of corporations spending political money without shareholder approval.

CREDO is right on the money when they call for shareholder pressure
on top of the consumer pressure that has been making Target pay the
price for supporting an anti-gay right-wing candidate. There is a
divergence of opinion, however, with regard to the feasibility of
pushing for a constitutional amendment.* Drafting the right
constitutional amendment to address this problem and then getting it
passed in three quarters of the states is a monumental task.

Thankfully, it's not the only tool we have to fight back with.

We–individuals–can
speak out, too, and raise money for candidates and committees that are
speaking out. You raised over $18,000 on ActBlue to help elect Annise Parker the
first openly gay mayor of any U.S. city in 2009. And although the fight
continues, your contributions totaling over $1 million to Equality for
All
were a major factor in the battle for marriage equality in
California, just as they were in Maine and Kalamazoo, MI and
elsewhere. The scale of the fundraising around these issues on ActBlue
made the intangible quantifiable; because of those efforts, there is now
a national conversation taking place about gay rights.

We can do something similar about Target. Reducing Target's effect on elections—if it's possible—would no doubt
improve our democracy. Just as effective (and arguably more satisfying)
would be to make sure the pile of cash they're spending in Minnesota
not only gets them into hot water, but is entirely wasted to boot.
ActBlue makes it possible for every one of us to be a part of that.
Together, our voices are louder than Target's. The attention we've
brought to Target's donation, and a similar donation by News Corp., the
parent company of Fox News, has re-focused attention on Citizens United
and the effects it has on our political system. In short, we've already
beaten them on the airwaves; all that remains is to defeat the
candidates they're propping up.

More speech. More money. The right money. It's an imperfect
system our Founders created for us—as are all human institutions—but as
we at ActBlue have been showing for six years, it's a pretty good system
for fighting back against entrenched interests until we have a more
perfect system. We just have to be willing to use the rules to our
advantage.

*On a personal note, as a longtime CREDO member—from over a decade ago
when it was just Working Assets and they only sold long distance
service—I worry about curtailing the free speech rights of corporations.
CREDO is a corporation, and for years I've been signing their citizen
letters to protect the environment, stop the war, hold Dick Cheney
accountable, and myriad other public policy concerns that matter to me.
It would be a tragedy if the goverment could tell CREDO that it has no
first amendment right to free speech or to petition the government for a
redress of greivances.

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