Huck's Army struggles to stay on the right side of campaign law
Michael Roston
Published: Tuesday January 29, 2008 |
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If Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign is a David vs. Goliath story, the volunteers known as "Huck's Army" are the former Arkansas Governor's sling. While Huckabee improved his fundraising totals prior to his Iowa Caucus victory, the candidate remains financially far behind his Republican competitors. And with his cash flow still limited, Huckabee continues to cheer on the loose nationwide network of volunteers, his "secret weapon," who are working to turn out voters in his favor.

Alex Harris, one of the 19-year-old evangelical twin brothers credited with launching Huck's Army, recently explained the group's purpose in an interview with Newsweek.

"It's not as if we're a part of the campaign, but we're working to complement what the campaign is doing and fill in gaps where the campaign doesn't have resources to build the infrastructure that Mitt Romney can build with all his money," he said before the South Carolina primary, where Huckabee had a second-place finish.

The major question is whether or not Huck's Army, and other external efforts to bolster presidential candidates in this election, can avoid breaking federal election laws. And based on some evidence, Huck's Army may have stepped over some lines.

Phone banking may be subject to federal regulations

Huck's Army is another manifestation of "Politics 2.0" during the 2008 presidential campaign. Eager volunteers, with varying degrees of separation from official campaigns, have devised novel promotional tools for candidates like the pro-Barack Obama "Hillary 1984" video and the Ron Paul Blimp. These efforts have brought to light the difficulties of keeping independent advocacy on behalf of candidates legal.

The Federal Election Commission regulates coordination between official political campaigns and external actors. While any kind of communication between a campaign and volunteers can be subject to federal election law, FEC regulations particularly single out groups that pay for advertising on behalf of a candidate, as the cost of such communications can easily exceed limits on individual campaign contributions.

Huck's Army takes pains to note that it is "not owned or operated by any candidate or political campaign" on its website. But the volunteers and Huckabee's campaign may find themselves in situations, accidentally or not, where the legality of their parallel activities comes into question.

For instance, a Jan. 15 account in Wired shows a Huck's Army volunteer describing how he interacts with the Huckabee campaign.

"[Jeffrey] Quesnelle, a Catholic 20-year-old software engineer in Sterling Heights, Michigan, says that the group coordinates with the Huckabee campaign to target messages to specific voters, like white, under-30 evangelical Christian women," the magazine's Sarah Lai Stirland reported.

Additionally, news reports have also described Huck's Army engaging in aggressive phone banking on behalf of Huckabee before the South Carolina primary. It appears that there was some communication between campaign staff and volunteers regarding this effort.

"Yes, we have a list that will not be overlapped with the official campaign list," said a volunteer who posted a message at the Huck's Army online forums. Other participants had worried about overlapping with the campaign's efforts.

The Huck's Army volunteer later thanked, "Leslie Rutledge who works with the campaign," in an update just before the South Carolina primary goers voted.

An expert in federal campaign law said that coordination between a presidential campaign and outside volunteers on phone banking could move over the line into a federally regulated form of coordination.

"What could trigger coordination rules would be Huckabee's people saying 'we'd love for you to distribute this message via phone banking,'" said Paul Ryan, the FEC Program Director and Associate Legal Counsel of the Campaign Legal Center in an interview with RAW STORY. "Even if Huckabee were to contact Huck's Army and say some phone banking would help us out, that would get an outside groups like Huck's Army into coordination regulations."

Other campaign law specialists note that volunteer groups like Huck's Army may run afoul of the law unintentionally.

"A lot of people may be enthusiastic," said Lawrence Noble, Counsel at Skadden Arps in Washington, DC. "They don't know what the law is, they assume certain things, and then they go ask the campaign what they can do."

But some Huck's Army volunteers do seem aware of the possible legal implications of their efforts.

"Just be sure that any expenditures to get call lists are properly reported to the FEC," warned one volunteer in the earlier forum discussion.

Huckabee's campaign did not respond to e-mails or phone calls from RAW STORY requesting comment.

Group makes effort to educate volunteers on law

In a phone interview with RAW STORY, a representative from the group did not believe that there was any direct coordination going on between the Huckabee campaign and the Huck's Army volunteers.

"I don't know of any specific interactions with the campaign other than requests to help with phone calls and to invite friends to participate in the campaign via e-mail," said David Schmidt, a California-based National Grassroots Campaign Manager for Huck's Army.

Schmidt also explained that the group as an organized entity hardly exists.

"We're a communications network more than anything," he added, noting that Huck's Army does not collect money and does not buy advertising on Huckabee's behalf. "We provide information about opportunities for the campaign, but they really have no control over us."

Huck's Army members are also advised to stay within the framework of campaign laws, including the requirement that they report expenditures over $250 to the FEC.

"We educate individuals on FEC guidelines, and make sure they've read the citizen's brochure," Schmidt explained. "We feel that we've given people a pretty good education, but there are not a whole lot of people going out and spending large amounts of money independently."

Schmidt also said the FEC had not contacted Huck's Army volunteers about any of their activities, although the group's members have contacted the FEC to seek clarification on some matters, and received responses.

If Huck's Army has broken any election laws, only the FEC can say so. And even if they have, the group might face very slow enforcement action from the FEC, or no action at all.

"Generally the FEC has not been that aggressive on coordination issues," said Lawrence Noble at Skadden Arps. "A number of commissioners have felt the investigations are intrusive, with the view that this is more independent activity than campaign activity."

And the Campaign Legal Center's Paul Ryan argued that FEC enforcement action would fail to serve as an effective deterrent. Groups like the Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth and the Voter Fund received fines that were small relative to the amount of money they spent, and more than two years after the 2004 presidential election.

"Unfortunately in my view, the practical consequences of getting caught violating most of the campaign finance laws come so long after the campaign itself, and they seldom amount to a slap on the wrist," Ryan said. "That's par for the course with FEC enforcement action, even when the law is broken, the penalty is relatively small."

As for Huck's Army, they'll continue to raise their banner for Huckabee as the campaign heads for Super Duper Tuesday in February.

"We're really focusing on targeting states that we've got a good shot at winning, and those are states like Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas where we expect to win big," Schmidt said. "I think there are also opportunities in places like North Dakota, and proportional states, where we can pick up a significant number of delegates."