A partisan communication is simply when a credit union communicates to its members a message advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office. Under federal election law, a credit union, league, or CUNA may communicate in any method it deems appropriate, and may use any language it chooses (including phrases and words such as "vote for,” "elect,” "vote against,” or "defeat” candidate X), so long as the communication is only directed toward members of that credit union (or in the case of a league, members of credit unions affiliated with the respective league unless the credit union has its own federal PAC).
What are some examples of Partisan Communications?
Examples include direct mail pieces or postcards, articles in a members-only credit union newsletter, statement stuffers, emails, phone calls, recorded messages left on voicemails, or fundraising invitations or solicitations for the benefit of a candidate.
Why should credit unions endorse or advocate for candidates in the first place? That’s not in the nature of our relationship with our members, right?
Many credit union professionals wrongly assume that their members do not want to hear from their credit union on political issues or elections. In fact, in survey after survey, we have found that credit union members actually appreciate information from their institution advising them on the candidate most likely to support their credit union. During election season, credit union members are already hearing lots of political messages from a variety of sources: their employer, political party, union, church or religious group, social organizations or trade associations to which they belong (or don’t belong), and of course the candidates themselves. In the context of all of this communication and political messaging, it is vitally important that credit union members also hear from their credit union on which candidate will best work to protect their credit union.
In practice, credit unions receive very few actual complaints from members after a communication has been sent, in some cases less than 1/10th of one percent of all the members contacted have actually complained, if any. Furthermore, by working with CUNA and your league, we can apply the targeting techniques described below and significantly reduce the likelihood of member complaints.
Must the communications be sent to all members of a credit union?
Partisan Communications may be directed to the entire membership, or to any subset of the membership, provided, of course, that no one outside the credit union’s membership receives the communication. In fact, CUNA and leagues often work with individual credit unions to match their membership databases against a voter file in order to target a specific portion of the overall membership in order to more effectively help the candidate we are supporting.
What’s this about a "voter file”? What do you mean by "targeting”?
In virtually every state in the union, lists of registered voters are public information, as are certain other information obtained by the state during the voter registration process (such as date of birth, address, gender, party affiliation, etc.). Using sophisticated political polling and research, CUNA and your league will often identify targeted subsets of the population deemed most likely to support your supported candidate. For starters, we always first restrict recipients of our communication to those credit union members who are registered to vote and who reside in the candidate’s district. We often seek to also limit our recipient list to those affiliated with or registered to the same party (e.g. Democratic or Republican) as our candidate, as well as Independents. In rare instances, we may also include a certain subset of the other party as well if our polling and research indicates they may be favorable or persuadable. For example, a "target list” for a supported Republican candidate may include all registered Republicans and Independents, as well as Democratic men over the age of 55 who reside in certain counties within the district.
The goal of this comprehensive and sophisticated targeting process is twofold: first, it ensures that our resources are deployed in the most effective manner possible, i.e. communicating with those members who are most likely to support the candidate we are trying to help, while eliminating those members most likely to oppose the candidate. Second, and just as important, targeting in this way significantly reduces the likelihood of a negative response from members aimed at the credit union since we have already weeded out those most likely to disagree with the credit union’s position.
How is the match to the voter file actually done?
CUNA and your league will either acquire a voter file and provide it directly to your credit union to perform the match, or refer you to a third party vendor or mail house who will match the list.
What about privacy considerations? Doesn’t the Gramm Leach Bliley Act prohibit the sharing of our members’ personal information?
CUNA’s regulatory counsel and outside election law counsel have carefully researched this question. CUNA and the leagues are prohibited under Gramm Leach Bliley from obtaining or viewing your credit union’s membership list (beyond a mere headcount of how many members are on a given list). Nothing in federal privacy or election law, however, prohibits your credit union from communicating directly with its members in these types of communications.
This includes the use of a third party vendor. To comply with federal privacy law, any third party vendor to which we refer you for the voter file match, targeting, or actual dissemination of the communication (via mail, email or phone) will sign a confidentiality agreement with the credit union. CUNA and the league will be privy only to the parameters of the target list (district, party affiliation, etc.), the final headcount of the list, and the form and design of the actual communication sent.
What about the communication itself? Who drafts and sends it?
The actual Partisan Communication may be drafted, produced, and disseminated by the credit union itself or any third party vendor. In many instances, however, CUNA and your league will refer your credit union to a selected third party vendor that specializes in political communications. This ensures that the research, targeting, and dissemination are done in a professional, sophisticated manner designed to ensure that we efficiently and effectively communicate on behalf of our candidate.
Often several credit unions may collaborate so that all of their respective membership lists receive the same targeted communication piece to allow for both efficiencies in cost and production as well communicating a common message. To reinforce this common theme or message, it is often delivered in a series of related communications.
Communications may bear either the logo of an individual credit union, multiple credit unions, the league logo, or a common "Credit Unions for John Doe” logo. Lastly, you can rest assured that the entire process will be guided by the political professionals within both CUNA’s Political Affairs Department and at your league.
May we coordinate with the candidate or his/her campaign on the content and dissemination of the communication?
Yes – you may coordinate with the candidate and/or his/her campaign on aspect of the communication – the message content, targeting, etc. Credit unions often will invite the candidate to visit a branch and take photos so that communications are "personalized” to the credit union.
The only prohibition in this regard is that any communication must be of the credit union or league’s own design – you may not forward or otherwise disseminate communications or materials produced and provided by the candidate, his/her campaign, or a political party.
Who can pay for Partisan Communications? Does it have to come from a political action committee (PAC)?
The communications may be paid for by either the credit union, the league, or CUNA. As long the communication is restricted to the credit union’s membership only, it does not have to be paid for by a PAC.
Must a credit union have signed a CULAC Permission Agreement to conduct a Partisan Communication?
No. Permission Agreements are only required for CULAC to solicit or accept contributions from members of a credit union. For more information on Permission Agreements or CULAC, contact your league or the CULAC staff at CUNA.
What about staff time by credit union employees participating in the preparation of a Partisan Communication?
While only the actual cost of the communication itself is reportable (see below), credit union employees may be paid to perform work related to a Partisan Communication. Note that credit union employees may not be compensated for activities performed on behalf of the campaign or that are otherwise not directed at the credit union’s membership. These activities should be performed on a voluntary basis, on the employee’s own time.
Is there any federal reporting of these expenses or communications?
Yes – if the total cost of all Partisan Communications for a given primary election or general election in a given year (for all candidates) exceeds $2,000, then the entity that paid for the communication (e.g. credit union, league or CUNA) must file a Form 7 with the Federal Election Commission. This is a relatively simple form that requires reporting only of the type of communication (mail, phone, email, etc.), the candidate for whom it supported or opposed, the office that candidate was seeking, and the total cost of all communications for the candidate in the reporting period.
Additionally, there is some related reporting on the IRS Form 990. Any entity (credit union, league, CUNA, etc.) must include the cost of its contribution to a partisan communication on Schedule C, Part IA, regardless of whether the entity sent the communication itself (e.g. a credit union that contributed toward a league’s partisan communication must still include its contribution on the 990.)
CUNA Political Affairs staff and CUNA’s outside, retained election law counsel, Wiley Rein, LLP, stand ready to assist in the preparation and filing of these reports at no charge.
Are there other considerations with regards to Partisan Communications?
In certain instances, yes, there are other considerations. Communications that concern fundraising or solicitations for a federal candidate require additional disclaimers and are governed by additional rules. Similarly, additional rules apply to calculating the reportable cost of a partisan communication that is part of a larger communication (such as an article within a newsletter that deals with other topics).
Of special note, the discussion in this document applies only to Partisan Communications undertaken on behalf of federal candidates, or those seeking election to the U.S. House, Senate or Presidency. Different laws and rules apply to communications on behalf of candidates for state and local office, and you should direct questions on these topics to your state league.