GOP should return money raised from deceptive census mailings

Yesterday the House of Representatives unanimously approved HR 4261, the Prevent Deceptive Census Look-Alike Mailings Act. The short bill would ban fundraising letters like those the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee sent last month, which gave the appearance of being official census documents. Those mailings were legal because they did not “use the full name of the U.S. Census Bureau or the seal of any government agency.” However, even Republicans have admitted that the tactic crosses a line, and no one in the House GOP caucus wanted to go on record opposing the bill yesterday.

On the other hand, it costs Congressional Republicans nothing to vote for this bill. Their committees are already cashing checks from this year’s deception, and the next census won’t roll around for ten years. If Republicans truly believe it’s wrong to raise money with a fake census letter, they should return all contributions from suckers they’ve duped this year.  

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Latest Republican fundraising trick: fake census forms

The Republican National Committee had its “worst election-year cash flow this decade” in 2009. RNC Chairman Michael Steele started the year with about $22 million cash on hand and ended the year with less than $9 million in the bank. Fortunately for him, the GOP may make up the lost ground with an innovative scam fundraising tool: fake census forms.

The fundraising letter comes in the form of a “survey,” a frequently used device for partisan fundraising, but this one has a twist: Calling itself the “Congressional District Census,” the letter comes in an envelope starkly printed with the words, “DO NOT DESTROY OFFICIAL DOCUMENT” and describes itself, on the outside of the envelope, as a “census document.”

“Strengthening our party for the 2010 elections is going to take a massive grass-roots effort all across America,” Steele writes in a letter that blends official-sounding language, partisan calls to arms, and requests for between $25 and $500. “That is why I have authorized a census to be conducted for every congressional district in the country.”

Representative Dave Loebsack recently warned constituents in Iowa’s second district about the RNC’s appeal: “This fundraising letter even calls itself a ‘Census survey’ and asks people to pay for the cost of processing the census form.” Iowa Independent posted a link to a scanned version of the mailing in this piece by Lynda Waddington. She notes, “The mailing includes a ‘census tracking code’ as well as a deadline to respond.”

Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York introduced legislation this week to “prevent deceptive census lookalike mailings.” Earlier, she and Representative William Clay of Missouri wrote the U.S. Postmaster General, charging the RNC was breaking federal law by sending out an “attempt to mislead recipients.” Even if Maloney’s bill moved forward, it would come too late to stop this fundraising drive.

Apparently the RNC’s mailing is legal, according to the postal service, because “it doesn’t use the full name of the U.S. Census Bureau or the seal of any government agency.” But Ben Smith writes at Politico,

Even some who have been involved with the program, however, acknowledged that it walks the line.

“Of course, duping people is the point. … That’s one of the reasons why it works so well,” said one Republican operative familiar with the program, who said it’s among the RNC’s most lucrative fundraising initiatives. “They will likely mail millions this year [with] incredible targeting.”

Shameful.

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