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Why Jill Stein’s Recount Push is Bad News for Democrats

6 minute read

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has now raised $7.2 million to fund vote recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That’s more than twice the total Stein raised through the entire 2016 campaign, all to pursue a project that has effectively zero chance of changing the result of the presidential election.

Her own running mate is against it. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was against it. Democratic operatives say it’s a waste of time and money, or worse. Donald Trump calls it a “scam.”

Stein’s effort does raise a few red flags. She jacked up her fundraising goals (from $2.5 million to the current $9 million) as cash poured in, changed her estimates of attorneys’ fees and has furnished no concrete evidence of voting shenanigans. She’s raising money for recounts that may not happen, in a race where she played spoiler, and she’s been vague about what will happen to any money left over from the fundraising drive.

Yet campaign finance lawyers say there’s no indication that Trump’s charge is true. Stein may be draining grassroots resources, but she has so far spent the money the way she promised. The real danger for Democrats is that her doomed project is a sign of a problem that has longed plagued Republicans.

Throughout the Obama Administration, the GOP has struggled with the scourge of the “scam PAC.” These groups raise money by pledging to accomplish a certain goal—draft a candidate to run for office, or drive a policy goal—then use the cash to enrich themselves. The Federal Election Commission recently recommended that Congress crack down on fraudulent outfits, defining them as groups which “solicit contributions with promises of supporting candidates, but then disclose minimal or no candidate support activities while engaging in significant and continuous fundraising, which predominantly funds personal compensation for the committees’ organizers.”

Movement conservatives have long bemoaned the proliferation of scam PACs in their ranks. One reason for the phenomenon is the simplicity of the formula: pinpoint a source of grassroots outrage or excitement, rent a mailing list, pump out solicitations and reinvest the cash on ever-more fundraising appeals—all while pocketing a share of the proceeds. There are different theories why conservatives have been ripe for plunder: an aging, web-baffled base; a media bubble; the lack of a consensus leader; the ideological gulf between the party’s grassroots and its elected officials. But the primary reason is the party has been out of the White House and unable to achieve many of its signature promises. Scam PACs thrive on outrage.

But now the script is flipped. The Democratic base is furious about the results of the election, rippling with anger toward Trump and facing a leadership vacuum. Some nefarious entrepreneurs will try to wring profit from this sense of powerlessness. “I am sure we’ll see more groups popping up, more unscrupulous political operatives tapping into public dissatisfaction with Trump and public anger over his election,” says Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center.

Paul Jossey, a Virginia campaign-finance lawyer, has an idea about how they’ll do it. “If I wanted to make a million dollars tomorrow,” he says, “all I’d have to do is start a PAC, name it something like the ‘PAC Against Citizens United,’ buy some email lists, and in a month I’d have a million dollars or maybe more.” Jossey speaks from authority: he worked for a firm whose mission was to separate gullible Tea Partyers from their money, and he opened the playbook earlier this year in a piece for Politico. The structural conditions that give rise to scam PACs haven’t been present on the left, Jossey says, because the average small-dollar liberal donor has been reasonably happy with President Obama and ideologically in sync with congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi.

But Democrats haven’t been entirely immune to the phenomenon. One political fundraiser who created a host of pro-Bernie Sanders websites was later charged with fraud. Jossey singles out another group called Progressives United PAC, founded by former Wisconsin Senator candidate Russ Feingold—the longtime campaign-finance reform advocate—as an example of a PAC that raised millions, spent little of it on the party’s political candidates, and funneled most of it toward staff salaries and more fundraising appeals. (The group has repeatedly defended its work and dismissed the charge, which surfaced during Feingold’s failed campaign to win back his Senate seat last month.) But “while there have been a few [scam PACs] here and there,” says Fischer, “it doesn’t seem to have been as endemic a problem on the left.”

It’s easy to imagine that changing. Obama is on his way out. Fury toward Trump is unlikely to abate. And the Democrats’ top negotiator on Capitol Hill will be incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a moderate deal-maker whose Wall Street ties are anathema to the ascendant liberal wing of the base.

In the age of Trump, the looming danger for Democrats may not be outright grift but rather that an avalanche of futile solicitations will siphon cash from worthier causes. Political fundraising is more or less a zero-sum game. Every buck a small donor sends toward Stein’s recount is a dollar that probably doesn’t go toward organizing at the local level or rebuilding shattered state parties.

And some of the biggest grassroots outfits on the progressive left specialize in peddling false hope. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which declined an interview request for this story, is currently asking its nearly 1 million members for $3 apiece to support efforts to reform the Electoral College and organize protests designed to convince electors to vote for Clinton instead.

Even when such groups aren’t asking for money, they may be preparing to profit off subscribers’ activism. MoveOn.org has garnered more than 400,000 signatures on a petition asking Congress to block Trump aide Steve Bannon’s appointment as a senior White House adviser. It makes no mention of the fact that the position, unlike Cabinet nominations, is not subject to Senate consent. The point of the exercise is to gather email addresses, which will be added to the list for future fundraising solicitations or sold or rented to like-minded groups.

But by the time the petitioner realizes this, there will be a new indignity to confront, and a new solicitation waiting in their inbox.

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com