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September 26, 2023

Ritter: No changes to campaign finance rules in special session

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG House Speaker Matt Ritter and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney in 2021.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Monday that the General Assembly will not vote Tuesday in special session on a proposal to allow publicly financed candidates in Connecticut to raise money online using the popular Democratic fundraising platform, ActBlue.

ActBlue’s platform is not compliant with state law, and Ritter said lawyers have struggled to draft statutory language that would open Connecticut to ActBlue without conflicting with or undermining the state’s Citizens’ Election Program, which finances most campaigns for the General Assembly.

“If we could find a way to do it, it would be bipartisan,” Ritter said.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, pushed to add ActBlue language to an elections bill scheduled for a vote Tuesday that primarily would move up the date of the 2024 presidential primary by four weeks and ease the appointment of an elections monitor in Bridgeport.

ActBlue was launched in 2004 as a tool for Democrats to efficiently raise small-dollar donations, a year before Connecticut adopted a law creating a Citizens’ Election Program, or CEP, that provides public financing to candidates who agree to strict spending and fundraising limits, among other things.

To qualify for a CEP grant, candidates must demonstrate support in their districts by meeting fundraising thresholds with small donations — most of which must come from their districts.

One of the conflicts with state law is that ActBlue is subsidized by “tips” that drive down costs and benefit clients. Under Connecticut law, that amounts to an in-kind contribution. 

The language sought by Duff would allow ActBlue in Connecticut by exempting “a web-based written communication that solicits a contribution to any committee” from the definition of campaign expenditure, language that Republicans and State Elections Enforcement Commission lawyers complained were overly broad.

“There’s a lot more implications to this than I think even Senator Duff doesn’t understand,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.  “And it sounds innocuous enough, but it’s not. To exempt these companies now from campaign rules, by excluding them from the definition of an expenditure, is pretty dangerous.”

ActBlue did not respond to a request for comment.

ActBlue has proven most efficient in raising money in small amounts from out-of-state donors, often a critical source of cash for underfunded congressional challengers — but contrary to a principle of the CEP, according to Michael J. Brandi, the executive director of SEEC, the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

“The proposed language aggressively erodes the bargain made between the government and the taxpayers with regard to the CEP and the financial support of candidates. Currently, candidates qualify for public grants by demonstrating support from the voters within their district,” Brandi wrote Friday in an email to Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative leaders. “Candidates must do all of their own fundraising. As a result, most contributions used to qualify for public grants are from the people the candidates will actually represent.”

Duff disagreed.

“Connecticut is the only state in the nation that does not have ActBlue or allow ActBlue,” Duff said. “And it’s not by law, it’s by a SEEC opinion or fiat.”

Legislators have explored statutory changes that would allow ActBlue to be used in state campaigns in Connecticut, some of which have been subjected to public hearings, Duff said.

“Frankly, I don’t think this is a big deal,” Duff said.

But Connecticut is unlike nearly every other state in that the campaigns of most candidates for state legislature are publicly financed. About 99% of legislative candidates who apply for public grants receive them.

“SEEC strongly opposes this language. It is de-regulation for no apparent purpose, with no apparent need,” Brandi wrote.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the broader fundraising net that ActBlue can cast might be helpful in fundraising for state legislative leadership political action committees.

Candelora said if Duff is correct and the change would be no “big deal,” then he should be willing to have the legislative language be vetted at a public hearing and subjected to a vote in a standalone bill.

On Tuesday, the General Assembly is expected to confirm the nomination of Nora R. Dannehy to the Connecticut Supreme Court and approve an elections bill that will move the presidential primary and make technical changes to election law, including clarifying an elections monitoring law.

An error in state law limited the ability of the Secretary of the State’s office to appoint and fund an elections monitor in Bridgeport, an oversight that took on urgency after allegations of absentee ballot fraud in this month’s Democratic mayoral primary.

The formal call of the special session is too narrow to allow Republicans to seek harsher penalties for elections fraud, but Candelora said the GOP could seek other changes, including discontinuing the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots.

Republicans were expected to caucus Monday night to discuss amendments that could be proposed Tuesday.

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