Questions remain for Mayday PAC

Professor Lawrence Lessig, in black suit, delivering a talk at Stanford
Mayday PAC founder and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig speaking at Stanford University in 2008; Photo credit: Flickr user Robert Scoble

(Updated 7/23/2014, 2:49 p.m.)

I won’t be asking you to DONATE NOW again and again. That bit is done. Instead, for the rest of this cycle, what you’ll hear from us is about how your campaign is working.

We’ve got lots of ideas about how to make this work. We’ll be testing them and improving them and building lots that’s new. But you’ve raised the money. It’s time to get down to work. So stay tuned.

With those words, Mayday PAC founder and campaign finance crusader Lawrence Lessig (who is also on the Sunlight Foundation’s Advisory Board) announced the group had met its July 4 deadline to raise $5 million, triggering an additional $5 million in contributions from wealthy donors who pledged matching funds if the PAC could raise the money by Independence Day.

That means the group detonated what appears to be an unprecedented money bomb. Consider: As of June 30, the day books closed on the second quarter and Mayday had collected $3.3 million, according to the campaign finance disclosure it filed 15 days later with the Federal Election Commission.

On July 4, in a message on the group’s website, Lessig announced the PAC had raised enough money to trigger an additional $5 million in matching funds. That appears to mean Mayday raked in $3.7 million in just four days. (See below for our calculations).

The committee has yet to disclose the sources behind this cash injection.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, Lessig wrote a letter to supporters announcing that he would make the names of major donors public by Aug. 5, and continue to provide disclosures every two weeks through Election Day. In the letter, Lessig also notes that his effort will be “much more expensive than it seemed.”

Legally, Mayday PAC can wait until Oct. 15 — less than three weeks before Election Day — to disclose those details; however, Jonathan Lipman, a spokesperson for Mayday PAC, told Sunlight that the committee “is working on methods for providing greater transparency in real time.” Meanwhile, the group has provided summary data on its website for donations before June 27.

The group’s founders want to stamp out corruption of the campaign finance system, starting with five races in the midterm elections. The goal is to elect candidates committed to campaign finance reform, regardless of party.

The PAC has yet to identify the five races in which it intends to use the money. Mayday’s Rachel Perkins told Sunlight in an email that Mayday’s board has been meeting since the 15th to discuss the selections.

From what we have seen in the group’s FEC report, Mayday has had some success in attracting small dollar contributions. Of the $2,091,015 in itemized contributions it received from April through June, $481,269.88 came from donors who gave less than $1,000 total. An additional $1.2 million came from donors who gave less than $200. None of the itemized money came from other PACs or corporations.

Even so, Mayday’s fundraising follows traditional patterns in other respects: Most of the group’s donations prior to June 30 came from just three ATM states (so called because they are where politicians go to withdraw money): California, Massachusetts and New York.

Mayday’s efforts to raise a $12 million war chest to help five as-yet unnamed supporters of campaign finance reform win elections this fall involves a complex series of transactions:

  • To get its first $2 million, Mayday had to raise $1 million from small donors. This was matched by six-figure donations from tech moguls listed in the group’s second quarter FEC filing. The matching funders included Chris Anderson of TED Conference fame and Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal.
  • The group set July 4 as the cutoff for raising an additional $5 million to be matched by another group of wealthy donors. Subtracting the $2 million accounted for above, the PAC was still $3.7 million short as of June 30. However a congratulatory message from Lessig posted on the group’s website declares that the PAC met its goal.
  • As of publication, Mayday PAC’s website reports it has raised nearly $7.7 million from 54,000 donors.

The PAC has yet to identify donors for the bulk of that haul.