Some supporters might have been confused by recent campaign websites that appear to be soliciting donations to support a candidate, while the literal text of the site is actually about defeating the candidate. It’s a trick that’s been popping up more frequently, and it’s perfectly legal — even if it looks deceiving.
Earlier this week, the National Republican Congressional Committee set up quasi-campaign websites for House Democrats facing tough re-election battles, including Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ), Amanda Renteria (CA), Martha Robertson (NY), Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) and John Tierney (MA). There was also a site for Alex Sink, the Democrat hoping to recapture the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young’s (R) seat in Florida.
The websites were nearly carbon copies of a campaign website to support the candidate right down to the URL; one domain was registered as JohnTierny2014.com. The key detail is that they asked for donations to “help defeat” the candidate — something only careful readers might catch.
Text on the site for Kirkpatrick, for example, read “Make a Contribution Today to Help Defeat Ann Kirkpatrick and candidates like her.” At the bottom of the sites was a small disclaimer indicating that the sites were produced by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
In one case a Florida supporter for Democrat Alex Sink, Ray Bellamy, meant to donate to her campaign but went to the NRCC’s website instead.
“It looked legitimate and had a smiling face of Sink and all the trappings of a legitimate site,” Bellamy told the Tampa Bay Times. The NRCC eventually refunded Bellamy’s contribution.
It’s actually a practice that had been going on for some time. Campaigns cybersquatting websites as a way to throw a small but nasty punch at the opponents is not new. And even now there are examples of anti-Republican sites taking the same approach. But the new sites took it to the next level. The sites also seemed to have been blocked as potential phishing sites on some browsers.
Election law attorney Joseph M. Birkenstock told TPM that he’s seen a version of “URL parking” or buying up similar names to the official campaign sites before, but “if those pages had contributions at all, it was slam-dunk obvious that you were making a contribution to oppose that candidate.”
“This is different. This is the first time I’ve seen one where they use a banner where by its own terms is actually express advocacy on behalf of that candidate,” Birkenstock said. “One word at the end of the line contradicts the banner and contradicts the URL.”
When websites like these in the past were created they teetered on the edge of violating Federal Election Commission regulations. But even if the FEC determines they’re above board, Birkenstock explained that the fake sites could discourage a typical voter to not donate to their preferred candidate — especially in swing districts.
“It sows confusion,” Birkenstock added. “Now other people are reading these articles when they go to their actual website, it’s not inconceivable to me that somebody says when they go to that actual website they say ‘well, man I don’t know now. This looks like it’s the right page but so did the other one. How sure can I be that when I click donate that she’s actually going to get the money that I want to give her?'”
University of California, Irvine Professor Rick Hasen, who specializes in campaign and election law, said he expects to see more sites like these in the future.
“You know at some point it’s going to cross the line and it’s going to be illegal,” Hasen told TPM.
But that’s still a fine line. Creating a website that’s just deceptive, Hasen said, doesn’t make it’s illegal.
“Deceptive political advertising that doesn’t cross the line into fraud is probably protected under the First Amendment,” Hasen said.
Correction: This story originally suggested that the fake sites had been modified after they were originally put up. They had not been changed after they were first posted. We regret the error.
(Photo credit: Think Progress)