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Organizing Guide

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Independent Expenditure Background and FAQ

Quick Links

  1. Expenditures reporting form
  2. Independent vs. Coordinated comparison chart
  3. Compliance questions form


In order to help elect Bernie Sanders president and build independent socialist power, DSA needs to build a politically savvy grassroots base that will organize for Sanders today and continue to fight for Democratic Socialism after election day.

The Bernie 2020 proposal adopted by the National Political Committee of DSA, calls for the national DSA for Bernie campaign to be an independent expenditure (“IE”) strategy, rather than a coordinated campaign. This follows from the DSA National Electoral Strategy adopted in January 2018 which calls for building explicitly socialist electoral infrastructure, rooted at the chapter level, held independently from particular candidates and other party institutions.

Furthermore, DSA already has experience running an IE campaign for Sanders during his previous presidential campaign.

The purpose of this document is to give a general background on what an independent expenditure means, what chapters will have to do in terms of tracking and reporting information for federal election campaign finance reporting, and what is and isn’t permissible under federal election law.

DSA is a (nonprofit) corporation. Because federal law prohibits corporations from making either cash or in-kind contributions to federal candidates, DSA resources may not be used to coordinate public communications or activities with the Sanders (or any other federal) campaign. Instead, to support a federal candidate, DSA has two choices: contribute less than $5000 nationwide to a particular candidate via a traditional federal political action committee (PAC), or independently spend money on activities to support a candidate that are not coordinated with that candidate’s campaign--an “independent expenditure.”

“Contributions” are not limited to directly giving money to a candidate, but includes anything of value that’s used to support the candidate. Printing up “DSA for Bernie” fliers to go canvassing, for instance, would count as a contribution to the campaign in the amount of the fair market value of that print job, if we were coordinating with the campaign--even if an individual DSA member used their own printer and paper to print those fliers on behalf of DSA. Any contribution like this by a DSA chapter or organizing committee would violate the ban on corporate contributions.

As for contributions made by a federal political action committee (PAC), federal law would likely treat the existing DSA PAC and any other federal political committee created by a DSA chapter as “affiliated,” which would make the $5000 limit cumulative across all such political committees nationwide. That is, contributions to the Bernie campaign by political action committees associated with national DSA or any DSA chapter or organizing committee, whether separately incorporated or not, would have to stay under an aggregate limit of $5000. This low limit, combined with our commitment to building independent and explicitly socialist political power through electoral work, is the primary reason that the Bernie 2020 committee recommended an independent expenditure effort.


What does an independent expenditure effort mean for DSA’s relationship with the Bernie campaign?

It means we can’t make decisions about our Bernie work in consultation or cooperation with, or at the request or suggestion of the Bernie campaign, or with other entities that are coordinating with the Bernie campaign. That means those DSA members and staff organizing around the independent expenditure campaign cannot talk to the Bernie campaign about where they’re canvassing, where you should canvass, where you have canvassed, what kind of literature you should carry or its messaging, etc. in any way that would mean DSA would have information about the campaign that isn’t publicly known.

What does an IE effort mean for my chapter’s relationship with the Bernie campaign?

  • Members may work for the Bernie campaign if they take certain steps (see below)
  • Members may volunteer for the Bernie campaign on their own
  • Members may turn people out for public Bernie events

BUT IF YOU’RE PARTICIPATING IN THE DSA IE EFFORT, YOU CAN’T talk to the Bernie campaign about where they’re canvassing, where you should canvass, where you have canvassed, what kind of literature you should carry, etc.

You mentioned reporting. What kind of reporting will my chapter have to do as part of the IE?

You’ll need to track information on any expenses your chapter has associated with Bernie work, including the name and address of any vendor you use, the date of the expense, its amount, and its purpose.

You’ll also need to track information on any individuals that pay for any expenses associated with the DSA IE effort, whether or not they get reimbursed, including their name, address, and employer and information about they payments they made for any goods or services in support of the IE effort.

Click here to go to the Expenditures (types listed above) reporting form.

Finally, if your chapter raises money specifically for Bernie work, you’ll need to track anyone who donates to that fundraising drive.

A more detailed FAQ and guide to reporting, along with other tools for reporting, will come out soon and we will run regular trainings and have individualized coaching available.

What if my chapter wants to coordinate with the campaign?

If your individual chapter for whatever reason would prefer not to do an independent expenditure effort, but instead coordinate directly with the campaign, it is possible, but you will have to follow some very strict rules. First, your chapter can’t spend any money or donate anything to that coordinated campaign. It is illegal to directly use any DSA resources on a coordinated campaign.

Even if your chapter separately forms a political action committee (PAC), because all those committees are considered “affiliated” with the DSA national PAC, any money your committee spends or in-kind donations made by your committee are counted against the small $5000 limit shared by the national PAC and all chapter-created committees. As a practical matter, it would be all but impossible to ensure that many such affiliated committees stayed within the $5000 limit. We also hope to preserve that $5000 in permissible contributions to use in those limited circumstances when coordination with the Bernie campaign would be essential. Therefore, any chapter that coordinates with the campaign will have to spend no money and depend entirely on the official Sanders campaign’s resources.

Second, you’ll have to be behind a “firewall” where you can’t talk to any chapters on the independent expenditure side about the independent Sanders work they’re doing, or ask any national DSA staff about Bernie work, or use any resources paid for by national DSA or any of those chapters on the independent expenditure side on your Bernie work.

What if we’re part of the IE effort and someone in our chapter works for the Bernie campaign?

If someone in your chapter is employed by the Bernie campaign, but you still want to do an IE effort, we’ll ask that person to sign a statement saying they will not bring information over from the campaign or otherwise violate the independent expenditure rules. They must (1) absent themselves from conversations about how to deploy DSA resources, and (2) abstain from any votes regarding sending resources to the IE, but they may continue to volunteer as a rank-and-file member on the chapter’s Bernie work and continue to weigh in on non-Bernie issues and otherwise speak and vote on non-Bernie matters.

We’ll have that statement available soon.

Is there anything else important we should know about an independent expenditure?

Yes! Any communications that incur costs (printed material, banners, emails through a paid service, paid Facebook ads, a separate web site, etc.) need to have a disclaimer notice prominently displayed. It must appear in a font that is of a size and a color that contrasts with the background sufficiently to be readable, and it must be set off in a bordered text box.

  • If you are not separately incorporated, the disclaimer notice is “Paid for by Democratic Socialists of America (www.dsausa.org) and not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”
  • If you are separately incorporated and are paying for the communication locally, the disclaimer notice is “Paid for by [name of your chapter] ([chapter web site]) and not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”

The Sanders campaign asked its supporters to hold events on a particular date (i.e., the coordinating kickoff on April 27). Can we do that as part of our IE?

No. An independent expenditure means we can’t do anything at the request of the Sanders campaign. However, if you have already independently organized an event (such as a debate watch party), you don’t have to cancel the event even if the campaign subsequently sends a request asking people to do to such events.

Can we use act.berniesanders.com to post DSA for Bernie events as part of the IE effort?

No. You cannot use the web site to post DSA for Bernie events as part of the IE effort.

Can we coordinate with our local Our Revolution chapter?

Nationally, Our Revolution (OR) is not coordinating with the Bernie Sanders campaign but instead supporting his candidacy via independent expenditures. However, their structure is different than ours and local groups are not chapters in the same way. OR has its own lawyer, reporting, and infrastructure so our concern is how we work with them and how that might affect our status as an independent effort.

If a local OR chapter is coordinating with the Bernie Sanders campaign, we cannot work with them as an independent DSA for Bernie effort. Any DSA member or chapter that gets involved in coordinated efforts by OR risks tainting DSA’s independent expenditure efforts in support of Sanders. Such DSA members or chapters must be firewalled off from the DSA IE efforts under the same policies put in place for DSA members or chapters that have chosen to operate on the coordinated side, and any such chapters on the coordinated side of the firewall cannot spend any money on the effort.

Individual DSA members may volunteer as part of any joint DSA-OR independent effort, and, if they want to, DSA or its chapters may make cash or in-kind contributions to OR, which would then be responsible for reporting such contributions, as may be required by law.

If my chapter is separately incorporated, are we legally protected in case we mess something up?

Yes. The National Political Committee (NPC) has approved the following for separately incorporated chapters with 501(c)(4) status participating in the independent expenditure:

National DSA will provide legal counsel and pay enforcement fines for any separately incorporated DSA chapter that participates in the Independent Expenditure campaign, in the unlikely event they face enforcement action stemming from that work, provided the chapter maintained regular contact with their regional organizer and the DSA Bernie 2020 committee, including: timely reporting of campaign-related expenditures and any relevant fundraising; submitting public communications for approval where appropriate; and demonstrating a reasonable, good faith effort by the chapter and its officers to follow all laws and internal DSA guidance.

Check out this handy chart to see this information distilled and arranged visually.

Still have compliance questions? Fill out this form and we’ll get back to you!