Loophole a Spigot for E-Mail

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

A new loophole in election spending regulations is likely to produce a torrent of unsolicited e-mails to voters -- and widespread complaints about political spam -- as the midterm elections approach this fall, political consultants say.

Purveyors of private e-mail addresses and designers of campaign Web sites report that their businesses are booming this year as partisans take advantage of an exemption in election rules that allows wealthy individuals to pour unlimited sums into Internet communications without having to disclose their identities or total expenditures.

The loophole is "potentially breathtaking," said Roger Alan Stone of Advocacy Inc., an e-mail address retailer.

"It provides an enormous opportunity for political campaigns," agreed Max Fose of Integrated Web Strategy, which also sells e-mail addresses to political campaigns. Both men are expanding their staffs in anticipation of what they expect to be a multimillion-dollar surge in unregulated campaign spending via the Internet.

Critics worry that electoral e-mailing, which blossomed two years ago but is still in its infancy, could grow so quickly that millions of voters will be deluged with unwanted electronic messages before Election Day. Critics said the result could be a backlash against the candidates being advertised.

"I can't imagine this will be a particularly effective method of getting out the vote," said Jim Jordan of Thunder Road Group, a political consultancy. "It is spam after all, and there are few things that annoy us more than spam."

The e-mail exemption, which was approved by the Federal Election Commission in March, might become the next big avenue for campaign funding abuses, some experts warn. Heavy spenders, such as individuals or groups not affiliated with campaigns, could use mass e-mailings to alter the outcome of key congressional races and still remain anonymous, a result that runs counter to the intention of federal election laws.

Carol C. Darr, director of the nonpartisan Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet, foresees "a complete free-for-all" because of the loophole. She added: "Sure, the FEC may still regulate the nickel-and-dime stuff. But . . . in the Hundred Years War against political money, big money has won."

The FEC voted unanimously March 26 not to regulate political communication on the Internet, including e-mails, blogs and the creation of Web sites. The commission had decided two years earlier to exempt all Internet activity from regulation, but that ruling was overturned by a federal judge who ordered the FEC to write rules that apply to at least some parts of cyberspace.

Bloggers, who are a fast-rising force in politics, pushed hard (with the help of their readers) to convince the commission that their writings should not be considered for the purposes of regulation the same as campaign contributions. In the end, they won. Only paid political advertisements placed on Web sites were ultimately subjected to campaign finance limitations.

Web site activists celebrated the decision as a significant advance for Internet freedom; political entrepreneurs recognized a commercial opportunity.

Fose, with offices in Virginia and Arizona, has more than doubled his staff to 12 people this year largely in response to the FEC ruling.

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