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February 09, 2016

How to Use Dark Money Nonprofits to Run Your Voter Shaming Program

By Matt Corley

In the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’s presidential campaign sent mailers to select voters in the Hawkeye State, warning them of a “voter violation” because of “low expected voter turnout in your area.” Each mailer included a voting “grade” and “score” for the recipient and several of their neighbors. “Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record,” the mailer read. “Their scores are published below, and many of them will see your score as well.”

Iowans were not amused. One voter said the mail piece inspired him to throw his support to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, issued a statement condemning the mailer, saying it was “not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.”

The use of voter report cards to increase turnout is rooted in political science research that found social pressure can work as a powerful inducement for political participation. The technique has been used by candidates and groups across the political spectrum, but as Sen. Cruz discovered, the tactic carries with it serious potential for backlash.

There is one way to benefit from this tactic without facing the wrath of voters freaked out by the public airing of their voting records. On the eve of today’s New Hampshire primary, voters in the Granite State also reported receiving voter shaming mailers, but unlike the Cruz campaign’s mail pieces in Iowa, these letters couldn’t easily be connected back to a presidential campaign.

Instead, the letters, which include the voting records of the recipient’s neighbors, say they are part of the “New Hampshire State Voter Program” and were paid for by Public Policy Matters. Almost nothing is known about Public Policy Matters. Though it lists a New Hampshire post office box for its address, the organization is not registered in New Hampshire or with the Federal Election Commission. As the Daily Caller noted, corporate records in Virginia show that an organization called Public Policy Matters was formed on August 24, 2015, and shares an address with a law firm, Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky PLLC, that regularly works with Republican campaigns and outside groups.

Public Policy Matters is also registered in Ohio as an affiliate of the Virginia group. The Ohio paperwork, which was filed on September 23, 2015, describes Public Policy Matters as a nonprofit corporation and lists J.B. Hadden as a director of the group. Mr. Hadden, who works at the law firm Murray Murphy Moul + Basil LLP, previously served as campaign treasurer for Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine. The purpose of the group, according to the Ohio filing, is “to further the common good and general welfare of the citizens of the United States of America by educating citizens, policy makers, and leaders about important matters of public policy and advocating for responsible and effective public policy solutions.” Increasing voter turnout or civic participation is not mentioned.

Voters in New Hampshire will not be able to determine who is behind these mailers before they go to the polls today. It’s possible, however, that they may be able to learn the real backers in a year or so. That’s what is happening now for voters in the 2014 election that were ominously targeted by voter report cards sent by groups associated with and funded by the Republican Governors Association (RGA).

A Tactic Tested in the 2014 Election

In October 2014, voters in Maine and Kansas received mysterious mailers and e-mails asking, “what if your friends, your neighbors, and your community knew whether you voted?” Just as with the mailers being used in the 2016 primaries, the messages included a “voter report” listing the past voting records of the recipients’ friends and neighbors, and ominously suggested that the same friends and neighbors could be informed about whether the recipient went to the polls on Election Day. In both states, the arrival of the mailers was met with suspicion and unease. Citizens and local officials described them as “creepy” and “a form of intimidation.”

Little, however, was known about who was behind the mailers. In Kansas, they were attributed to the “Kansas State Voter Project” while in Maine they were said to be part of the “Maine State Voter Program.” Both were described as projects of Be Counted, Inc., an organization with virtually no public profile. The group didn’t have a website and wasn’t registered in either state.

The voter shaming effort in both states appears to have been aimed at aiding the incumbent Republican governors up for re-election. An investigation by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington found that the funding for the mailers ultimately came from a nonprofit affiliated with the RGA. According to tax filings, in 2014, the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee (RGPPC), a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, contributed $1.19 million to Be Counted, which was formed in Ohio just two months before the voter shaming mailers arrived in mailboxes. Be Counted only raised $1.24 million in 2014. For all intents and purposes, the group – and its mail pieces – were completely funded by the RGPPC.

The connections between the governors group and the voter shaming outfit go further. Be Counted lists a law firm’s Cincinnati, OH address as its own, but the group’s telephone number is associated with a lawyer who works in that firm’s Louisville, KY office. The lawyer, Michael G. Adams of Dinsmore & Shohl, LLP, also happens to serve as general counsel for the RGA and is listed as the secretary and treasurer of the RGPPC. In addition, at least one of Be Counted’s board members appears to have previously worked for the RGA. The board’s secretary is listed as Margaret Rauck. A person by the same name was listed in IRS filings as finance staff at the RGA as recently as December 2010.

The actions of Be Counted and the RGPPC do not appear to break any rules or violate any laws, but they represent an atypical use of nonprofits for political purposes. By using a nonprofit with no prior public presence and no easily discernable ties to the Republican Party, the RGPPC was able to benefit from the voter shaming mailers while avoiding any resultant criticism. Since the RGPPC’s backing wouldn’t be revealed until the group filed its 2014 tax filings nearly a year after the election, there was basically no fear that voters in Maine or Kansas would connect the mailers creeping them out to the Republican governors seeking their votes.

Since it is organized as a tax-exempt section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, the RGPPC doesn’t have to publicly disclose its contributors, so the ultimate source of funding for Be Counted’s voter shaming project is almost impossible to discover. Only a few 2014 funders of the RGPPC are known. For instance, power company Exelon voluntarily disclosed that one of its subsidiaries, Exelon Generation, gave $125,000 to the RGPPC in the first half of 2014. Two Wisconsin-based nonprofit organizations also disclosed giving to the RGPPC on their 2014 tax returns. The Jobs First Coalition gave $120,000 while the Business Industry Council gave $50,000. It’s unknown whether these contributions, which cover less than 5 percent of the RGPPC’s 2014 fundraising, were intended for Be Counted or other purposes.

Shadowy Consultants behind the Mailers

On its tax filings, Be Counted describes its mission as “advocacy for voter participation via general pro-voting advertising (without reference to candidate or party).” The group says it spent $1.11 million on such advocacy in 2014, largely split among three vendors who all provided “advocacy advertising” services. One of the vendors, Georgia-based Paces Direct, LLC was also paid more than $453,000 by the RGA in 2014 for “mailing” expenses, according to records on file with the IRS. Another group tied to the RGA, the American Comeback Committee, paid Paces Direct $2.059 million in 2014 for “mailing.” Be Counted spent $196,456 with Paces Direct.

Most of the cash spent by Be Counted, however, went to a company called Jopaulsh Consulting, LLC that received $738,662. There is little information about the company or who is behind it. Though the company’s address is listed as a post office box in Philadelphia, PA, there are no companies matching Jopaulsh Consulting in Pennsylvania state corporation records. A Jopaulsh Consulting LLC was formed in Delaware in July 2014, about a month before Be Counted was formed in Ohio. No names are associated with the company in the business filings. It was registered by an outside company that handles corporate filings.

Federal campaign finance records show that two super PACs employed Jopaulsh Consulting in 2014. Jopaulsh appears to have provided voter shaming work for one of the PACs similar to the work the company did for Be Counted.

In October 2014, the Opportunity Alliance PAC, a now-terminated super PAC, paid Jopaulsh $89,449 for political strategy, printing and postage. Later that month, voters in Alaska reported receiving “voter reports” nearly identical to the ones that Be Counted distributed in Kansas and Maine, asking, “what if your friends, your neighbors, and your community knew whether you voted?” and listing neighbors’ recent voting records. The letters described the mailings as being part of the “Alaska State Voter Program” and paid for by the Opportunity Alliance PAC. The super PAC, which didn't report paying any other vendors for mail services, paid Jopaulsh an additional $16,076 after the election in December.

The other group to use Jopaulsh was Unlocking Potential PAC, which was chaired by current presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and paid Jopaulsh $44,500 for digital consulting and other services in October and November 2014.

Secretly-Funded Voter Shaming 1.0

An early version of the voter shaming “state voter program” mailers appeared in Arkansas in May 2014, just before the state’s gubernatorial primary. As with Be Counted, the mailers, which were sent before Jopaulsh was formed, were also distributed under the banner of a nonprofit with quiet ties to the RGA. The “Arkansas State Voter Program” was described as a project of A Public Voice, Inc, a nonprofit that is part of a notorious network of groups associated with a campaign finance lawyer in Ohio named David Langdon.

The RGPPC didn’t report giving any money to A Public Voice, but another nonprofit affiliated with the RGA called State Solutions, Inc. told the IRS that the group contributed $290,000 to A Public Voice in 2014. State Solutions doesn’t appear to have done much other than pass money to other organizations in 2014. Regarding the $290,000 given to A Public Voice, the RGA may have been the ultimate source of that money. The governors group reported giving $300,000 in February 2014 to Make Ohio Great, which is the name by which State Solutions was previously known.

It is possible, however, that the money State Solutions provided to A Public Voice wasn’t tied to the voter shaming project. A Public Voice, along with another group funded by State Solutions called Citizens for a Sound Government, worked with the RGA to fund an independent expenditure committee that ran ads attacking Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) before the 2014 election. A Public Voice gave $1.17 million to the attack group while Citizens for a Sound Government gave $685,000.

Whether they are acting as a cut out for controversial voter contacts or as funding sources for attack ads, it is clear that utilizing nonprofits is part of the RGA’s tool kit as it pursues its “primary mission” of helping “to elect Republicans to governorships throughout the nation.” Too bad voters will be left in the dark. 

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