Satirical super PACs: Don’t try this at home
There’s a reason why television programs used to warn their viewers: “Don’t try this at home.” For every clever stunt, there’s inevitably someone who hasn’t thought it through, attempts it and injures themselves.
The same holds true in the world of campaign finance.
While following the money trail of Stephen Colbert’s super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, we stumbled upon a lot of other super PACs were also advocating for a better tomorrow, tomorrow. We also noticed many of them have received inquiry and warning letters from the Federal Election Commission for additional information and/or noncompliance.
Here are the names of some of the PACs contacted by the FEC:
- Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Yesterday
- Milwaukeeans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow
- Penn Staters for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow Inc.
- Utes for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow
- Rauhmel Fox is for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow
- My Cat Xavier for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow
- Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Period
- Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Today
- Americans for a Better Yesterday
- Americans for a Better Yesterday, Tomorrow
- San Diegans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow
- Cats for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow
- Howard Stern Fans for a Baba Booey Tomorrow, Tomorrow
- Herschal and Moley for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow
- Bears for a Bearable Tomorrow
- We Just want Stephen Colbert to come to our College
- Raising Awareness of Dihydrogen-monoxide for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow
We’re just acting on a hunch here, but we suspect a lot of people who decided to get into the satirical super PAC business probably didn’t research FEC requirements.
After reading through some of the warning letters, here are some of the top things we think people probably didn’t know before setting up their satirical super PAC.
- You must open a separate bank account for the super PAC.
- You have to appoint a treasurer who will be held liable by the FEC for the super PAC.
- You cannot use a candidate’s name outright in your super PAC’s name. The way to get around that is to do something like the super PAC supporting Carly Fiorina, whose name CARLY for America reportedly stands for Conservative, Authentic, Responsible Leadership for You and for America.
- You must meet filing deadlines. Missing those deadlines can land you in hot water and potentially cost you money.
We were curious about how much time the FEC might be spending handling these types of satirical copy-PACs. So we requested information from the commission about how many warning letters they have sent out to super PACs since 2010.
The FEC provided us two databases: One database documents all of the letters it has sent out asking for additional information about the super PAC, the other contains all of the organizations it has sent letters to for missed filing deadlines.
By our analysis, since 2010, the FEC’s database shows the agency sent out 2,818 letters to super PACs who had not filed their campaign finance reports on time.
To break that down by year, it sent:
- 274 letters so far in 2015
- 1,326 letters in 2014
- 185 letters in 2013
- 1,028 letters in 2012
- 4 letters in 2011
- 1 letter in 2010
By election cycle, those numbers are:
- 1,594 for the 2014 cycle
- 1,218 for the 2012 cycle
- 6 for the 2010 cycle
In that same time period, the agency sent out 838 Requests for Additional Information (RFAIs). According to the FEC’s website, the commission sends these out when “a Campaign Finance Analyst identifies an error, omission, need for clarification or possible prohibited activity.” The website goes on to state that this gives the committee the opportunity to correct and clarify the public record.
Here are how those breakdown by election cycle:
- 309 letters for the 2014 cycle
- 451 letters for the 2012 cycle
- 78 letters for the 2011 cycle
The increase in numbers is clearly not all from people trying to emulate Mr. Colbert, but they highlight the problem the FEC faces now discerning between satirical and real committees. The FEC can’t be the judge of people’s sense of humor. And the commission can’t track data on real versus fake super PACs, even when some super PAC names indicate a high probability of satire. Some of the ones that stood out to us included:
- Slam Dunks, Eagles and Fireworks PAC
- Talkin’ Smack PAC
- Raptors for Jesus
- Bringin’ Sexy PAC
- Zombies of Tomorrow
- Antisuper PAC
- PAC your bong
- Hall and Oates Fans for America (You know you just started singing this one).
So, before you start your own super PAC — satirical or otherwise — you should probably read the full guide from the FEC. You can also find advisory opinions about it here. Let’s also add in a little light reading about possible fines for not complying here — but you can do that while listening to this Hall and Oates song.
Or, you could go the route that Stephen Colbert did by hiring a team of attorneys to help him make his satirical point. But, as we mentioned in our previous post, that’s not cheap. It cost the PAC more than $90,000.
Tempted to create your own PAC now? We created this handy (and oh-so embeddable) widget that generates names for possible political groups! (If you find one that really sticks and run with it, just remember to comply with all FEC rules…) Results may vary: