Monday, June 12, 2006

Loophole a Spigot for E-Mail: Critics Fear Voters Will Be Deluged as Fall Elections Near
Loophole a Spigot for E-Mail
Critics Fear Voters Will Be Deluged as Fall Elections Near
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer

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.

Advocacy Inc.'s Roger Alan Stone, who is not Republican media consultant Roger Stone, explained in a note to clients and associates why he is expecting a surge in revenue: "A wealthy individual could purchase all of the e-mail addresses for registered voters in a congressional district . . . produce an Internet video ad, and e-mail it along with a link to the campaign contribution page," he wrote. "Not only would this activity not count against any contribution limits or independent expenditure requirements; it would never even need to be reported."

Stone said that he is in discussions with representatives of wealthy individuals as well as state party officials about expanding their use of e-mails this year. He has contracted with at least three wealthy groups that e-mailed massively for primary campaigns this month.

Other political consulting groups are also feeling the impact of the FEC exemption. "We are hiring a new programmer or campaign specialist every three days," said John Aristotle Phillips, chief executive of Aristotle International Inc., which provides software and data services to electoral campaigns.

Voter Contact Services, which compiles lists of registered voters and matches them with e-mail addresses, expects its e-mail sales to double this year to more than 20 percent of its business, up from more than 10 percent in 2004.

The only impediments to growth, VSC chairman Bill Daly said, are increasingly sophisticated systems that block electronic spam and the dearth of middlemen to sell e-mail addresses for political uses. Campaigns can buy e-mail addresses for about 12 cents per name, retailers say.

"The e-mail loophole will be the vehicle that large donors will use at the last minute to get their message out this year," Fose predicted. "After they've put money everywhere else, the Internet will be the place where they will pour their funds at the end of the campaign season."

The election two years ago was the first in which a national list of registered voters was cross-referenced with multiple listings of e-mail addresses collected from magazine subscribers, catalogue shoppers, and online poll participants. As a consequence, lawmakers, candidates for office and interest groups were able to sell more than 25 million e-mail addresses of registered voters, and contact them at will.

SonicWall Inc., a California-based Internet security provider, estimated that more than 1.25 billion unsolicited political e-mails were sent to registered voters in 2004, up from virtually none during the presidential contest in 2000. SonicWall said it is too early to accurately predict the growth for this year, but for the presidential race in 2008, "there could be an exponential increase in the number of unsolicited political e-mails," SonicWall spokeswoman Mary McEvoy said.

With the FEC loophole, "everybody is looking at new ways to use the Internet to communicate," said R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Not just us, but the unions and every interest group you can think of."