"Coordination" is a legal term defined by federal election law and FEC regulation. For a more in-depth discussion of coordinated expenditures, including the FEC's 3-prong test for coordination, check out this FEC webpage.
In general, a group will be considered coordinated with a campaign or political party in a given election if they have:
- Been exposed to nonpublic strategic info about a campaign or political party’s electoral plans or activities; and
- Used that nonpublic strategic info to plan the group’s own electoral activity.
For instance, a group would likely be considered coordinated if a campaign or political party told the group that a specific neighborhood was a top strategic target for the campaign and then the group used the campaign or political party’s tools to canvass that neighborhood. In contrast, a group will not be considered coordinated if individual group members have done basic volunteer work with a campaign or political party on their own time, since that volunteer activity typically doesn’t involve exposure to any nonpublic strategic info.
The "nonpublic strategic info" analysis denotes the kind of information that generally will not give rise to coordination, such as info that is publicly-available and/or not strategic in nature.
For example, merely relying on publicly-available info about a campaign -- such as info that is posted on a campaign or political party's website or social media, stated in a public speech or setting, or reported in the news -- will not give rise to coordination (posting a candidate event on the organization’s facebook page is not coordinated where the information about the event was publicly available)
Similarly, sharing info with a campaign or political party that is unrelated to electoral strategy -- such as info about a candidate's stances on policy issues, or logistical info related to a candidate's appearance at an otherwise uncoordinated event -- generally will not rise to the level of coordination.
Once a group has been exposed to nonpublic strategic info, any money the group spends on that election will likely be treated as a coordinated expenditure.
What is Coordination? - Examples
Activities that may constitute coordination:
- Strategizing with a candidate, campaign, or political party about the upcoming election in any way.
- Sharing nonpublic strategic info with a candidate or someone on their campaign about your group's electoral activity, in a way that the candidate or campaign is able to respond positively or negatively about that activity.
- Receiving nonpublic strategic info about a campaign or political party's efforts in a given election.
- Sponsoring a campaign event (e.g., a fundraiser) with a candidate or political party.
- Note: sponsoring an event open to the public that a candidate merely attends may be fine, so long as the event is not developed in coordination with the candidate or at the campaign's request.
- Sharing resources with a candidate, campaign, or political party, including: money, data, vendors, literature, lists, scripts, or public outreach tools.
Activities that likely would not constitute coordination:
- Volunteering with a campaign or political party on an individual basis or personal capacity, provided that the individual is not being exposed to nonpublic strategic info.
- For instance, just showing up to a campaign canvass or phone bank as an individual volunteer is likely OK.
- Asking a candidate or political party their stance on a given issue, including:
- Asking a candidate to fill out an issue-based questionnaire;
- Hosting a nonpartisan candidate debate featuring all of the candidates for a given office, regardless of party affiliation;
- Hosting a candidate forum featuring only select candidates that is focused solely on the issues.
- Contacting a candidate or incumbent's staff to figure out the logistics of a candidate or incumbent appearance at an event.
- Educating a candidate on an issue your group is excited about, so long as you do not delve into electoral strategy.
- Endorsing a candidate, provided that you do not coordinate the announcement of the endorsement or your group's subsequent electoral activity with the campaign.
- Using publicly-available info (such as info pulled from the campaign's website, social media, or news reports) in materials that your group has developed to support the candidate independently of any campaign or political party.
What should I do if I suspect my group has already coordinated with a federal candidate?
First of all, don't panic. Instead, start by identifying your group's legal structure and the applicable campaign finance restrictions. Next, investigate the scope of the suspected coordination. Then, based on your analysis, make a plan for staying compliant through the rest of the election.
Step 1 - Identify your group's legal structure.
Unincorporated groups can coordinate with federal candidates, but any spending they do to support those candidates will be considered contributions, so the group should be careful to comply with any applicable reporting and contribution limits. If the group's electoral spending is not coming out of a shared bank account, but rather out of individual members' accounts, then each individual should keep track of their own spending and ensure that they are complying with the individual contribution limit.
Since coordinated spending is treated as an in-kind contribution, and corporations are prohibited from making contributions to federal candidates, an incorporated group that has received coordinating info is likely barred from spending any money to support that candidate.
Step 2 - Investigate the scope of the suspected coordination.
If only one member of a group has been exposed to nonpublic strategic info, then it may be possible to firewall that individual from the group's strategic decision-making around that race, allowing the group as a whole to remain on the IE side of that election.
Step 3 - Make a compliance plan.
If your group has not yet coordinated, then take steps to firewall off any individuals who may have been exposed to nonpublic strategic info from your group's strategic decision-making around elections. If you plan to spend money on that election, that spending will be treated as independent expenditures so long as you remain uncoordinated. For more info on how to report independent expenditures, click here.
If your group has been exposed to nonpublic strategic info, but is legally prohibited from coordinating with candidates, then your group should not spend any money on that election and any work you want to do on that election should be done on an individual basis.
If your group has been exposed to nonpublic strategic info, and is legally able to coordinate with candidates without violating tax or campaign finance laws, then your spending on that election will be treated as contributions and your group should make sure to comply with any applicable reporting and contribution limits.