Psst! Wanna Buy a Presidential Election?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 13 2000 3:46 PM

Psst! Wanna Buy a Presidential Election?

According to Title 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 100.7(b)20,

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A gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money or anything of value made with respect to a recount of the results of a Federal election, or an election contest concerning a Federal election, is not a contribution [italics Chatterbox's] except that the prohibitions of 11 CFR 110.4(a) and part 114 apply.

Similarly, according to Section 100.8(b)20,

A purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, or deposit of money or anything of value made with respect to a recount of the results of a Federal election, or an election contest concerning a Federal election, is not an expenditure [italics Chatterbox's] except that the prohibitions of 11 CFR 110.4(a) and part 114 apply.

In today's New York Times, John Broder reports that the Bush and Gore campaigns have created special funds to pay for their recount efforts, which could easily spill over into next month. These efforts, Broder points out, will occur largely beyond the reach of federal law. If the money I give to Gore or Dubya at this point isn't a campaign contribution and, once spent by Gore or Dubya, isn't a campaign expenditure, what is it? Chatterbox calls it one hell of an opportunity!

It would be an exaggeration to say that this money is entirely unregulated. Remember, "the prohibitions of 11 CFR 110.4(a) and part 114 apply." This means no "[c]ontributions or expenditures by foreign nationals," or from "corporations and labor organizations." After that, though, it's pretty much free play. There aren't any monetary limits on how much you can spend, and there doesn't appear to be any requirement that the money you spend be disclosed. In the Times, Broder says legal experts are divided on the latter point, but given the lax enforcement of far less ambiguous election laws, Chatterbox doesn't like the prosecutorial odds for convicting anyone who gives or receives a secret donation to Gore or Bush for recount efforts. (In previous cases, which involved House and Senate races, all the candidates had to do was make sure the funds didn't get parked with pre-existing campaign committees.) In an urgent solicitation for funds posted on its Web site, the Bush campaign states that all contributions must be under $5,000 and that all will be made public. A phone call to the Gore campaign's press office failed to yield any information about whether Gore is taking similar steps. In any event, both campaigns remain free to violate whatever promises they make on this score without risking legal sanction.

This is a fairly dangerous situation. The greatest risk is that some private individual, acting well within the law, can put Bush or Gore in his personal debt without anyone being the wiser. If Chatterbox had the inclination, he could give $1 million dollars, or $3 million, or $500 million, to the Bush or Gore ballot fight right now without leaving any fingerprints. Of course, Chatterbox doesn't have anything like that kind of dough. But in this robust economy, there are plenty of people who do who would seriously enjoy the gratitude it would buy. The current electoral mayhem is also somewhat conducive to outright bribery of the sort that disclosure laws ordinarily help prevent. For all the paeans one routinely hears about our glorious laboratories of democracy, state and local governments do not have a particularly impressive record when it comes to resisting corruption; and Florida's political culture is a bit more fun-loving than most. And don't forget the electors! This would also be an excellent moment to create a "faithless elector" slush fund; according to a "Marketplace" page roundup in today's Wall Street Journal, several Bush electors are already issuing slightly ambiguous statements about whether they'll bolt. There's no telling what a well-placed bribe here or there could accomplish, especially if the giver could promise that the cash couldn't be traced.

[Update, 6:50 p.m.: A Democratic Party spokesperson informs Chatterbox that "the Gore campaign will disclose every contribution and every expenditure, which is consistent with our candidate's and our party's strong belief in campaign-finance reform." It does not, however, have any plans to limit allowable contributions.]