THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s virtual briefing, “Revisiting Campaign Finance in the 2020 Elections.” This is a part of our ongoing Elections 2020 series, so thank you very much for joining today. If you haven’t done so already, please take the time now to rename yourself with your full name and media outlet. We will prioritize questions from journalists who have renamed themselves. During the question and answer session, you can turn on your camera if you’d like.
My name is Bryce Johnson. I’m with the D.C. Foreign Press Center and will act as the moderator today. Before we begin, please keep your microphone muted, and when you’re called on later you can unmute yourself. If you have a technical problem during the session, please use the chat function, and I or a colleague will try and assist you. As a reminder, this is an on-the-record briefing. Video and transcripts will be posted to our website, fpc.state.gov, later today or early tomorrow.
Now I’d like to introduce our briefer today. We’re very honored to have with us Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub, who has served as a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission since 2002 and who chaired it for the third time in 2019. The FEC is the independent regulatory agency charged with administering and enforcing the federal campaign finance law. The FEC has jurisdiction over the financing of campaigns for the U.S. House, Senate, presidency, and the vice presidency. I’d like to thank you very much, Commissioner Weintraub, for joining us. After her remarks, we’ll have a question and answer session that I will moderate. So now I’ll hand it over to Commissioner Weintraub for her remarks.
MS WEINTRAUB: Thank you, Bryce. It’s a pleasure to be here. Happy to talk to you all. Little bit odd to do it this way. Bryce and I were just chatting about the fact that I was one of the last in-person briefers that they had before everybody went into work from home mode, and it’s always nicer to be there in person to be able to see you all, so I regret we can’t all be together. I hope that that will change soon and we will all be able to gather in the same room again.
I’ll just give sort of an overview. I know most of you may already have some basic level of knowledge about how things work in the U.S., but just in case there are some newcomers in the room, I want to be clear that unlike virtually every other country that I know of, the U.S. does not have a national body that actually administers the elections. The elections are being administered at the state and local level. We are in charge of campaign finance at the federal level, but of course, I remain very interested in other aspects of the election.
It’s been a very unusual and challenging year, but our election administrators throughout the country have really stepped up. They – I was concerned earlier in the year that maybe people would not be able to vote, that turnout would go down because of the pandemic, but across the country administrators have really ramped up their ability to handle mail-in voting, absentee votes, and we’ve already seen 40 million people vote already in this election even though we’re still almost two weeks out from the actual Election Day. And that is a combination of mail-in voting and people who are voting early in person. Rules on that vary from one state to the next, but obviously a lot of people are very enthusiastic and they want to make their voice heard, and we’re very proud to have this vibrant democracy where people are eager to get that – get out there and register their votes. So that’s all great.
One other point that I just wanted to make about the election itself is that we may – as a result of having all these mail-in ballots and these unusual circumstances, we may not know the results on Election Night. Usually people learn about the election results from newscasters, from the internet on Election Night, but that is often largely based on projections that are a combination of the early results that are being reported and projections that the media makes based on their exit polling. And that’s not going to work the same way this year as a result of the huge number of mail-in ballots that we’re getting, and there are some states that aren’t allowed by their state law to start counting those mail-in ballots until Election Day itself. So – and that includes several of our big swing states. So it is quite possible that we won’t know the results on Election Night. There is nothing – that just means that our election administrators are doing their job and that they’re trying to accurately count every single vote. And that’s what we want them to do.
So it’s going to be an unusual election year, and it’s also an unusual election year in terms of the money that’s being raised and spent. We are busting through all sorts of records in terms of fundraising this year. It’s really been phenomenal. Lots and lots of small donors, people who are giving in small amounts of money, often on a repeated basis because they are enthusiastic about their candidates, or in some cases they are very unenthusiastic about the other candidate. But we are seeing a lot of money pour in. The civil society group the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs an excellent website that I highly recommend, opensecrets.org, has estimated that we will see $11 billion in spending this year. We don’t know – that’s an estimate. We don’t know for sure and we won’t know until we collect all of the reports at the end of the election, but that would be a phenomenal increase over previous years. Just as a point of comparison, in 2016 there was $6.5 billion raised and spent in that election, in that – in the last presidential election. So to go from 6.5 up to 11 would be – even if we don’t make it to 11, if we get anywhere close to that, it would be a huge, huge increase. And we’re already past the 6.5 that was spent in the 2016 election.
So we are seeing a lot of money being raised and spent. Presidential candidates alone have raised $3.5 billion. Again, billion with a B. It’s an extraordinary amount of money and a record-breaking amount of money in our country. So a lot of that is going to advertising. There’s – I think probably the great majority of it is going to advertising at this point since there is a lot less on-the-ground activity than we would normally see in a typical election year, particularly in a presidential election year.
But we collect that information. Everything that gets reported about the money ultimately derives from the data that we collect. By law, the presidential candidates, the House and Senate candidates, the party committees, the super PACs, all of them have to file regular reports with the Federal Election Commission. We just got in our third quarter reports. The quarterly reports are filed by most congressional campaigns and PACs on the 15th day following the end of the quarter, so on October 15th we got all of the third quarter reports. Presidential campaigns file on a monthly basis and those just came in – the reports through the end of September just were filed on the 20th, yesterday. So there’s a lot of brand new data out there and we just updated some of our information on our website even up till minutes before this presentation. So I highly recommend that you go to fec.gov, or if you want to see more analysis, as I said, there are a lot of other websites that do analysis. OpenSecrets is one. The Campaign Finance Institute does analysis, and there’s any number of civil society groups that really dig in and crunch the numbers.
But it all gets reported to us, as I said, on a regular basis, and then we will see pre-election reports, post-election reports, end-of-year reports. So we probably won’t know for sure the total numbers until sometime early next year because that will be after the end-of-year reports get filed next January.
We have, as you may know, contribution limits on money that goes directly to the candidates – $2,800 per person per candidate right now – and then there are slightly higher limits that go to the party committees. In addition, there are source restrictions. Foreign nationals aren’t allowed to give at any level – federal, state, or local – in our elections. Government – at the federal level, government contractors aren’t allowed to give; corporations and labor organizations cannot give directly to candidates or party committees. They can give to these outside spending groups, the – what we colloquially call the super PACs.
Now, there’s at least one question about the FEC, so let me just address that up front. We do have a problem at the FEC right now. The Federal Election Commission is supposed to be a six-member body, no more than three from any one political party. But over the last number of years, as commissioners have resigned to go off and do other things, they have not been replaced. So we find ourselves right now in a situation where we only have three commissioners, and there are supposed to be – there are supposed to be six, but it takes four to make most of the important decisions that we have to make. This is very unfortunate. It does impede our ability to do our job. We can’t start investigations, we can’t issue fines, we can’t issue rulemakings or advisory opinions if people write to us and they want to know whether what they want to do comports with the law. These are all some of the most important things that the FEC does and we just can’t do them right now.
Now, complaints continue to be filed, and there’s a five-year statute of limitations. So we fully expect people to continue to comply with the law. Even though we can’t address complaints right at this moment, our lawyers are analyzing every complaint as they come in the door, and the commission, when we have four commissioners, we will deal with all of those complaints at that time.
And in general, most people do in fact try to comply with the laws. So – and all of our staff are still available to people who call in with questions. For you all, our press office is up and running and available to you, but also our – we have analysts and information specialists who work with campaigns and members of the public who are – who need information. And as I said, we’ve just updated the website – all of our IT people are working and are – the reports are being analyzed as they come in to make sure that they are complete and that there isn’t any additional information that’s required.
So a lot of the important work that goes on in the building is thankfully done by our staff, not by commissioners. And they continue to do their jobs, although I often refer to what goes on “in the building” – actually none of us are in the building right now. We are – the agency is working pretty much remotely at this point.
So I’m – we are awaiting – actually the President has nominated a fourth commissioner, and at some point I’m sure Senate will deal with that nomination, because they have to advise and consent. They have to confirm the nominees before they can start service. So that’s what’s going on at the FEC, but we are still, as I said, fortunate to have great staff who are doing their jobs, and that’s how we can continue to get you the information that you need in order to report on this election.
Bryce, do you want to read questions to me, or how should we do this?
MODERATOR: So we’ll start up our Q&A session now. What will happen is the journalists, please raise your hand in Zoom, and we will call on journalists who have their hand raised and who have changed their name to include their full name and their media outlet. There – you can also, if you need to, input questions in the chat. And you’re more than welcome to turn on your video as well if you’d like to ask your question on camera.
We have a few prepopulated questions, advance questions that have been given to us that we can – that I’ll read off to you, Commissioner. But in the meantime, please raise your hand if you have a question.
And I will start us off – we have a question from Dmitry Kirsanov from TASS. Wait – please unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me okay?
MS WEINTRAUB: I can hear you. Oh, now I can see you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing the webinar, Commissioner. We appreciate the time. I wanted to ask you, I wanted to go back to the $11 billion that you mentioned at the top of the briefing, and —
MS WEINTRAUB: That’s an estimate.
QUESTION: — an estimate – and ask you to clarify who and how exactly arrived at this figure. And what does it mostly consist of? As far as I understand, you were referring to the general election, right? You then said that the presidential election portion was 3.5 billion. So I would like you to give us more details on that. That’s part one.
And part two of my question was – and I’m – forgive me if I’m – it’s a dilettante’s question. But I’m guessing a problem of foreign money is an issue to a certain extent in U.S. elections. And I’m sure a lot has been – a lot of studies have been done about that. But I personally am not familiar with those. And I wanted to ask you to give me, as a practitioner, your understanding of the extent of this problem, and who the main foreign abusers, so to say, are.
MS WEINTRAUB: All right, so let’s – thank you. So let’s start with the money. So the 11 billion is an estimate by a civil society group, the Center for Responsive Politics. And they are estimating that that is how much money will be spent by all of the players – all of the candidates, the party committees, the outside spending groups, what we call super PACs, and non-super PACs, the traditional PACs – everyone who is spending money in order to influence the election. That is an overall figure, and it goes to both the primary elections and the general election for the presidency, for the – for members of the Senate, a third of the Senate is up for election this year, and the entire House of Representatives, 535 members, they’re all up for election – all of those seats are up for election this year. So there are a lot of people running for office, they’re obviously – if you go back to the primaries, there were even more people running in the primaries. Now it’s pretty much narrowed down to a two-person race in most instances – not all, but in most instances.
The 3.5 billion is what presidential candidates alone have raised. Now, that’s not just Joe Biden and Donald Trump; that’s everyone who was running for president. There was a robust primary process, at least on the Democratic side – obviously, the Republican side, the – I think there were a couple of other candidates, but it was generally assumed that the President was going to get the nomination of his party. That’s usually the way it works. So there was a lot more money spent in the primary on the Democratic side, because it was much more up in the air as to who would win.
And then there’s a lot of money being raised and spent. There are a lot of Senate races that are very competitive, and the ones that are most competitive tend to draw a lot of money. We had one Senate candidate that raised I think $57 or $58 million in the last quarter, which was another record-breaking total for amount of money raised in any one quarter by any Senate candidate ever. But interestingly enough, he said that his average contribution was $37. So there are a lot of people – if you get a lot of people out there making a lot of small contributions, it can really add up to some fairly surprisingly large numbers.
So that’s kind of what’s going on in the numbers game. And I will be very interested in seeing at the end of the day what the final numbers are. It may not be $11 billion, but it’s going to be much higher than we had in our last election, and I think that’s because there are a lot of people out there that care a great deal about this election. They care about who wins the presidency, they care about control of the Senate, which seems to be up for grabs in virtually every election these days. So it’s a highly contested election with a lot of people very fervent in support or opposition to their candidates, and that’s how we raise a lot of money.
So the other part of your question went to foreign interference. Obviously, we saw this in 2016. We have seen some instances of foreign money coming in through corporate structures. We had a major case involving money that came from a domestic subsidiary of a foreign-owned company from China. This generated almost a million dollars in penalties, was the biggest penalty case the FEC has resolved since the – since Citizens United in 2010, a big Supreme Court decision that really kind of changed the legal landscape. That was a case involving the two thousand – it was an outgrowth of the 2016 election. That was not about this election. That was about the last election, but the commission resolved that – well, it must have been at least a year ago because it would have been back when we had a quorum. It might have been in the year before that. I can’t recall off the top of my head exactly when we concluded that investigation and settled that case.
But I think the primary effort that our Intelligence Community has been focusing on is the threat of disinformation, something that we also saw in 2016. The latest – and let me back up and say that our Department of Homeland Security has been working with all the state and local elections, election boards, for a number of years now, since the 2016 election, to try and harden their cybersecurity apparatus and make sure that they are less vulnerable to any kind of cyber-attack.
The FBI and CISA, our counterintelligence sub – it’s a subpart of the Department of Homeland Security – recently put out a public service announcement. They have – they do this on a regular basis. And they said the latest disinformation that they were anticipating that they wanted to warn people about was disinformation where, in this case, Russia would claim that they had hacked into election databases that they had not hacked into, but just trying to confuse the public as to whether they could trust the results. And so our intelligence agencies and our local officials and really a lot of civil society groups in this country have been working on more media literacy, trying to help our citizens to be more sophisticated about the information that they consume and share online so that they don’t fall for any disinformation that is attempted to be spread.
But I think it’s – there have been concerns raised about a number of countries, and there are also laws against that. Let me just say up front there are laws against any kind of that sort of foreign intervention. And they are not just civil laws, which would fall within the jurisdiction of the FEC, but there are also criminal laws that would fall within the purview of our Justice Department, and then obviously, there are – there is the potential of sanctions and other forms of potential responses.
QUESTION: Yeah, but —
MS WEINTRAUB: All that’s – all of that is out of my jurisdiction.
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s sort of out of your bailiwick. I was hoping to get a sense and understanding of how serious this problem of foreign money might be, figure-wise or in any other way, just trying to measure it. Do you have any understanding if it’s – how bad is that?
MS WEINTRAUB: I do not at this moment have any data that I can share with you on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. For our next question, we will take a question from Carla Bleiker at the Deutsche Welle. Forgive me if I didn’t pronounce that right. Could you please tell us your name and your outlet, and then ask – unmute yourself and ask your question?
QUESTION: Sure, hi. Thank you so much for doing this, Commissioner Weintraub. It’s really great and helpful. My name is Carla Bleiker. I’m a correspondent in D.C. with Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, and also currently working from home like so many others.
MS WEINTRAUB: Aren’t we all? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I have two questions. One is concerning super PACs. What are the restrictions on them if there are any? And if there aren’t, are there any plans to introduce restrictions on super PAC spendings, how much a super PAC can spend on an – individual candidates or how much money in general a candidate can get from super PACs?
And my second question is concerning the quorum that you mentioned. So if there are serious complaints, for example, about foreign financing or anything else that are on a large scale and could potentially influence the results of the election, did I understand it correctly that you couldn’t do anything about that currently because you do not have the necessary quorum?
MS WEINTRAUB: Well, thank you for the question. We can’t do anything about it right now. However, that sort of violation would almost inherently be also within the jurisdiction of our criminal justice system – the Justice Department, the intelligence agencies. They are fully able to do something about it. It’s just the FEC is hamstrung at the moment.
Super PACs are – by definition, they are independent spending groups. They don’t give money directly to candidates and they are not supposed to be coordinating with those candidates. They are an outgrowth of the Citizens United decision and the – and some of its – some of the follow-on decisions that came out of other courts in 2010 and thereafter.
And because – to get a little bit into the weeds on our campaign finance juris prudence, First Amendment to the Constitution says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. The way our Supreme Court interprets that – one of the things they say that covers is the money that candidates use to get their political message out. Because of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court says that we cannot pass any laws to limit overall spending. There are no spending limits in the United States. There are contribution limits to – when it comes to candidates and party committees because of the inherent risk of corruption that could obtain if – in a system of unlimited contributions that go directly to candidates. However, the court has held that when the spending is entirely independent of the candidates, there is not that same risk of corruption, and therefore there are no contribution limits to super PACs. So super PACs can take money from corporations and labor organizations, which candidates and party committees cannot. And they can – there are no contribution limits or spending limits for super PACs.
I’ll just say I don’t really agree with the Supreme Court doctrine, but that – I’m not a Supreme Court justice. I am merely a humble election commissioner, so I can only administer the law as it’s been interpreted by our Supreme Court. So there’s a reason why the super PACs raise and spend so much money: It’s because there are no limits on how much money they can raise and spend, other than the fact that they too are not allowed to accept money from foreign nationals. That goes across the board.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you. Our next question we’ll take from Andrea Vega with NHK Broadcasting. Andrea, please unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, all, can you hear me okay?
MS WEINTRAUB: I can.
QUESTION: Great. Well, thank you so much, Commissioner, for doing this. I had a quick question. So last week it seems that the Republican National Committee filed a complaint against the FEC regarding the New York Post article claiming that banning the article from Twitter, quote, was “illegal corporate in-kind political contribution.” So can you talk a little more about that complaint, what constitutes a contribution, I guess what it means for the election, provide just your comments, your response? Kind of want to get your opinion on this. Thank you.
MS WEINTRAUB: Well, actually, I can’t comment on the complaint. By statute, we are not allowed to comment on any complaints that are filed with the Commission until we have a chance to come to some legal conclusions and conclude the matter. So, unfortunately, I really can’t answer that question. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: That’s okay. But then I guess maybe a follow-up is can you talk about what would contribute as a contribution, whether it’s just money or kind of how – why they are viewing it like this?
MS WEINTRAUB: Well, I mean, the definition of contribution is broad. It encompasses more than just money, and I have spoken and written on this before. We have analyzed all manner of things of value to see whether they could constitute contributions, but at the same time there are normal business practices that are not considered contributions. The most basic is if you buy something from somebody, then that’s not a contribution what you get from them because you’ve paid for it. If somebody is offering a discount that they offer to the public at large, a candidate can also take advantage of that. There are exemptions for the media such that if a big newspaper makes an endorsement, that’s obviously a thing of value to a campaign, but it is not considered a contribution under the law.
I don’t know how much more I can get into the weeds on that in this context, but I hope that is somewhat helpful.
QUESTION: Yeah, it is. Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right, for our next question we have Sandra Muller. Sandra, could you please introduce yourself and your agency and ask your question? Thank you.
QUESTION: Yes, hello. Can you hear me? Yes?
MS WEINTRAUB: I can, yes.
QUESTION: Okay, sorry. I am trying to make the video; it doesn’t work. Sorry. So I try. No, it doesn’t want. Okay.
So I’m a French journalist. I’m working for La Lettre de L’Audiovisuel, which is a strategy (inaudible). And my question is: Do you think that there is an impact from the COVID about the amount? I mean, do you think people may be – they have much time for donation, do you think, because of the way of the COVID has impacted United States? And do you think it’s not a little bit contradictory, because in one way with the COVID there is a crisis and a really economic crisis – sorry for my accent – and in the other way, like, as you say, there is much more money than you never see before. So can you explain (inaudible) the COVID and the impact of the COVID and why there is this kind of a paradoxical situation?
MS WEINTRAUB: I think it’s complicated. As I said, earlier in the year, I was worried that people would be afraid to turn out and vote because of it, and that does not seem to be happening. Now, that’s in part because of the increased availability of mail-in voting, and I think a lot of people are taking advantage of the opportunity to vote early in person – the ones who want to vote in person – because, again, they don’t want to have this mass of people show up on Election Day. And to the extent they can vote early, that will take some strain off the system and probably means that they’ll be standing in shorter lines. But even some of the early voting sites, we’ve seen some very long lines because people seem to be very motivated.
I think that, yes, there’s been a severe economic impact from COVID-19. I wonder whether the fact that a lot of people are sitting at home staring at their screens all day long and maybe consuming a lot of information is getting people riled up about politics and making them think, “Oh, I’m going to send 25 bucks to my favorite candidate. I want to make a difference in this race.” So maybe people have more free time to focus on politics, and that may be a factor in the increased donations. As I’ve said, a lot of the donations are coming in in very small amounts of money. Let me see if I can – yeah, of the $3.5 billion that has been raised so far just by presidential candidates, one – almost 1.3 billion – so a fairly substantial chunk, almost a third – has come in in contributions of $200 or less. So that is – we’re seeing a lot of really —
QUESTION: That’s a lot.
MS WEINTRAUB: Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of money to be raised —
QUESTION: It’s a lot of money, right.
MS WEINTRAUB: — from very small donations. And as I said, maybe it’s because people are sitting at home staring at their screens and reading a lot about politics. I do hope that people are being careful about the information that they are consuming, because I think that this does raise the possibility that people may be exposed to not only a lot of good information, but also some disinformation. And I hope that people – I always try and advise people to try and be careful about tracking down where the information is coming from before they believe it and start sharing it, because that is – we don’t have some of the normal checks and balances that one would normally have of, for example, you go into work and you’re hanging out around the water cooler talking about what you saw last night online, and then somebody says, “Oh, wait a minute, that story isn’t right because I read this other thing online.” We’re missing out on a lot of those kinds of opportunities for interpersonal interactions that – and finding out information other than just from sitting there and clicking on things on our screen.
So I’m sure that historians will write long tomes about the impact of COVID-19 on all matter of aspects of our society, including the election. But as I said, so far one thing it hasn’t done is dampened enthusiasm or turnout, so that’s a good thing.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you for your question. If any other journalists have questions, feel free – we’ll take just a second to allow you to raise your hands. Otherwise, if you can’t find the “raise hand” feature, you can mention it in the chat to everyone, and I will then know to unmute you or to let you unmute and speak. Now, do we have any other questions?
All right. Thus far not seeing any. In the meantime, while journalists think of any other they have, I’ll take one of the advance questions that we received. We received a question from Manal Bakr from Akhbar El Yome, which is a media outlet in Egypt.
He asked: “What are the guarantees that confirm the integrity of the elections? What are the used means to repel foreign entities to influence the elections? And in the event that tampering is discovered, how do you deal with this issue?”
You’ve touched on this a bit already, but it’s a more broad question.
MS WEINTRAUB: Well, again, I think that really goes more to election administration. We have a very decentralized process, and one advantage of a decentralized process is that there is no one place where someone could hack into in order to disrupt the entire election. The election is being conducted by administrators throughout the country at the state and local level.
As I said, there has been – there have been a lot of efforts to harden cybersecurity since the last election. One advantage of mail-in ballots – we’re seeing a lot more people take advantage of that this year – is that they are inherently on paper, and you cannot hack a piece of paper. So a lot of people feel like that in and of itself is a ballot security measure. And of course, the paper can be recounted if people think that it’s not – the count wasn’t accurate in some sense. You’ve got all that paper; you can just count it all over again.
So I think that – and there are – maybe I should – I don’t know to what extent this has percolated to other countries, but we have a very low incidence of voter fraud in this country. We have a very low incidence of fraud in particular associated with mail-in ballots. It’s perhaps infinitesimally higher in the mail-in context than in the in-person context, but people have studied this over the years and only come up with a couple of hundred instances out of billions of ballots cast. So, and when the ballots are sent out they often come – to the extent they are going out in the mail, they often have tracking numbers, there are signature verification, there are all sorts of measure that the states and localities have in place to make sure that they are getting their ballots back from legitimate voters, from U.S. citizens who are entitled to vote. And then we also have a range of voter registration rules across the country, again, to ensure that only U.S. citizens are voting in our election. So this issue of voter security encompasses a lot of different areas, but, as I said, it’s – we don’t administer the elections at the FEC, so I’m just sort of talking based on my general knowledge of how elections work in this country.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Commissioner. We have another question that comes from Claude Porsella. He was asking about public funding. Claude, if you could please unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Okay. I don’t know if you see me or if you hear me.
MS WEINTRAUB: I hear you.
QUESTION: Can you hear me? I don’t know.
MS WEINTRAUB: I can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay, good. Well, we talked a lot about private money, the super PAC and all this, but could you talk a little bit about – and correct me if I’m wrong – I think the government is giving a certain amount of money to each candidate. Am I wrong?
MS WEINTRAUB: Yeah, you are wrong, actually. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Okay. (Laughter.)
MS WEINTRAUB: The – we have a public funding system for presidential candidates at the – there are – and then there are some systems at the local level of public funding. But there is – there’s not an overall system of public funding for federal candidates. The – and the sad truth is that the system that we have in place for presidential candidates has become obsolete. It worked very well from the time it started in the 1970s through the beginning of the 2000s, but then candidates began to realize that they could raise more money outside of the system, legally but outside of the public funding system, than they would get through the public funding system. And the public funding system comes with spending caps, which don’t come into play unless you take the public funding. And that – and this again goes back to how our Supreme Court interprets how the First Amendment impacts money in politics and rules on money in politics.
So we have on the books a system that would allow presidential candidates to apply for matching funds where small dollar donations are matched by the government in the primaries and then there is a grant for the general election, but they don’t have to participate in that system if they don’t want to. And at this point, neither of the major candidates are participating this year, and really the last several cycles none of the major candidates has participated in this system. There are bills in Congress to try and update it and make it more viable in the current – given the current circumstances of private fundraising, but those bills have not passed. So the public funding system isn’t really – it’s being used by a couple of minor party candidates but not by either of the major party candidates.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you. It looks like we have another question from Bingru Wang with Phoenix TV, China.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can you hear me now?
MS WEINTRAUB: I can.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Thank you, Commissioner. You talked about the small donors. Could you please elaborate more? Do we – do you have any idea if Biden or Trump has a lead among the small donors? And how – we know the last quarter Biden has a huge increase. How much advantage does this give him, given in 2016 Hillary also had a big advantage in terms of raising money, but she still lost the election? So I’m wondering what is – how important is, like, given how much money each candidate has raised? Thank you.
MS WEINTRAUB: Well, as you point out, money’s not everything. People tend to fixate on the money, particularly when the dollar figures are very high, but ultimately it comes down to whether the candidate has a persuasive message and motivates people to turn out and vote for him or her. You are completely correct that in 2016 Hillary Clinton raised more money than Donald Trump and yet she did not become president.
We had one candidate this year – there’s no limit on how much money you can spend on your own campaign. We had one candidate who spent a billion dollars on his own campaign, and his campaign went nowhere, even with spending a billion dollars. He showed up to the debate and people didn’t think he did a great job at the debates, and it was a very short and expensive experience for him but it did not land him on the ticket, and he is not going to be president.
So I think that’s a really important part of the story, that candidates do need money, they need a certain amount of money in order to run a viable campaign, but the fact that one candidate raises more money than the other is not going to be the answer. And as I said, overall, of the money that was raised by presidential candidates, roughly a third of that came in in what we consider small donations, donations of under $200.
QUESTION: Can I have a quick follow-up?
MS WEINTRAUB: Okay.
QUESTION: What happens to each candidate if they can’t – if they can’t use all the money they have raised? What’s going to happen to the rest of the money?
MS WEINTRAUB: Well, they can – it depends on what kind of a candidate they are. I mean, if it’s for the presidency, they’re probably not going to run again for president. Often, when candidates at the – for Senate or for House have extra money left over, they will just roll it over into their next campaign. They can – but excess funds can be donated to party committees, they can be donated to other candidates, they can be given to charity. There are a number of different things that a candidate can lawfully do and that has to be disclosed, what they do with the money. The one big restriction is they are not allowed to put it in their pocket and walk away with it. We have laws against personal use of campaign funds, so they can’t take their leftover campaign funds and go on vacation, buy a house, whatever, buy a new car or whatever they want to do, that if it’s for their personal use that’s illegal. But for the most part it will end up going to support other political causes.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right, we have time for a couple more questions. We have a follow-up question from Carla Bleiker. Carla, if you’d like to unmute yourself and ask your question. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. I wanted to come back to the question of public financing. You mentioned that in recent years no major candidate has made use of this opportunity to have donations matched from the government, if I understood that correctly. I would think the more money, the better, and if this is a way to get more donations, why not use it? Or is there a restriction that they – if they do this, they cannot accept some other sort of money?
MS WEINTRAUB: Well, there are spending caps that go along with accepting the public funds, and that is the big disincentive. Because this is – this is something that happened in 2008, for example, when – to go back a little bit further in time, George W. Bush was the first president to refuse the matching grant in the primaries, and Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to refuse the general grant. There is a pot of money that goes up with inflation but still is nowhere near what candidates are raising privately these days, that if a candidate – if a major party candidate wanted to accept this money going into the general election, they could accept that after the political conventions in the – that usually take place in the summertime, and then they would have something like six or eight weeks to spend that pot of money between the conventions and the election. But then they couldn’t take other money in addition to that. They would be – and they would be limited in how much they could spend.
Now, if they – if they raise the money – what the candidates figured out is that if they raise the money privately they would have a lot more money to spend, that people are giving a lot more in political contributions these days and it is possible, even if you only raise small-dollar donations, you can raise an awful lot of money these days with online fundraising. It makes it very easy. It used to be people would have to write out a check and put it in the mail and find a stamp, and now a lot of fundraising goes on online and it’s just – it makes it a lot easier to collect small donations, whereas before I think a lot of people would have thought, oh, it’s not worth the trouble to write a check for $3. Now campaigns are constantly sending people emails and texts and sending them links in order to have them raise funds, in order to have them donate funds in relatively small amounts, and it’s easy to do. So I think that has brought in a whole new class of donors.
But the bottom line is they can – candidates can raise more money and spend more money if they are in – if they fund their campaigns privately than if they accept the public funding, as it is currently constituted. As I said, there are proposals in Congress to fix the law so that it would make it more attractive to candidates, but they haven’t passed yet.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right, it looks like we have two more questions in the participant – two more hands raised. We’ll take those and then we’re going to have a hard stop. So first we’ll take a question from Alex Raufoglu with Turan News Agency. Alex, if you could introduce yourself and then your question, please.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you so much, Bryce. It’s great to see you. This is Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency of Azerbaijan. Commissioner, you have been terrific with your time today and also last time we met. I appreciate that. Yet, there are so many questions left and the most impactful things are the most difficult, right?
So I have two very simple questions. Should political advertisers be required to identify the top sponsors behind all ads appearing on TV, cable, internet, and radio? I know that that’s the case in many other countries but I don’t know how it is right now and how it should be, in your opinion. And what do you think is the number one mistake for the media to avoid in the days ahead to mitigate foreign influence? I understand if Putin or Erdogan or any other foreign leader would like to talk to the American public about an American election by using American media, nothing is stopping them, right? Thank you.
MS WEINTRAUB: Yes, the answer to your last question is yes, nothing is stopping them. People are free to speak. But if any foreign person or government or organization wanted to spend money to try and influence our election, that is illegal and it is a very broad ban.
In terms of identifying the source of the money, I completely agree that the more information that people have about where advertising is coming from, the better they are situated to evaluate the credibility of what they are seeing or reading. And we do have rules in place that require identification of the sponsors of advertisers, of advertisements. There are some states that have even more extensive regimes of disclosure where in addition to identifying, for example, the name of an organization that might be sponsoring an advertisement, they would also have to identify the top three or the top five donors to that organization. And I think those are good rules. I think more information is always better, so I would support that if somebody wanted to introduce that at the federal level.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: All right. And we have – our final question is a follow-up from Dmitry Kirsanov again. Dmitry, if you’d like to unmute yourself and ask your follow-up.
QUESTION: Thank you, I appreciate it. Commissioner, I wanted to ask if you see any chances in the current political climate for a campaign finance reform, or even better, to see Citizens United overturned? Thank you.
MS WEINTRAUB: In order for Citizens United to be overturned, that would have to be a decision of our Supreme Court. I’m not really seeing that. The Supreme Court has been fairly skeptical of campaign finance regulation in general over the last number of years, and some of the newer justices appear likely to continue along that path. So I’m – there are proposals to amend the Constitution in order to overturn Citizens United that way, and that is a cumbersome process but there is an effort afoot right now to try and accomplish that.
In terms of other campaign finance reform, there is a fairly extensive set of reforms that are proposed in what’s known – a bill known as H.R. 1 that was introduced and passed in the House of Representatives. It never made it through the Senate. I think whether there are prospects for campaign finance reform at the legislative level really depends on who gets elected to Congress in this election and who is in control of each chamber, as well as, obviously, who is sitting in the White House to sign or veto any such bills. So it’s – this is not the time to be asking that because we don’t know who’s going to be making those decisions. But I think there are a lot of people who are interested in seeing greater campaign finance reform, and there are a lot of good ideas out there.
There’s also a lot of innovation that’s going on at the local level. We’re seeing different cities trying new things out in terms of campaign finance reform, and I think that’s good. That’s often the way good ideas get started in the United States is they get started at the state or local level and then they attract a following nationwide, and then they sometimes are introduced in Congress.
MODERATOR: All right. That’s all the time we have for questions today. Once again, I would like to thank you so much for your time and loaning us your expertise, Commissioner Weintraub. It’s always a pleasure to have you and hopefully we’ll be able to talk again in the near future.
For our journalists who joined, thank you for joining and for your interest in the Foreign Press Center briefings. We have more Elections 2020 briefings coming up, and the transcript and video for this briefing will be posted either tonight or sometime early tomorrow. If you have any questions, feel free to email us at email@example.com. And I will second the commissioner’s recommendation to visit the FEC website because it has quite a bit of good information.
Thank you so much and have a good rest of your day. That concludes our briefing.