Warning issued after RNC sends 'imitation census' mailers to boost Trump re-election in Montana

Mailers circulating in Montana are read "2019 congressional district census."

October 4, 2019, 4:09 PM

A mailer circulating in Montana labeled "2019 congressional district census" notifies voters "you have been selected to represent voters in Bozeman, Montana," with an enclosed letter that reads, "President Trump has requested that a Census of every Congressional district be conducted immediately."

But the form, one of many sent to residents in at least four counties across the state, is not for the official U.S. census.

PHOTO: An "imitation census" from the Republican National Committee that asks voters for donations to President Trump's reelection campaign."
An "imitation census" from the Republican National Committee that asks voters for donations to President Trump's reelection campaign."
Montana Department of Commerce

It is instead a survey, commissioned by the Republican Party, as written at the top of the form, to solicit donations for President Trump's re-election campaign.

The attached letter, signed by Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, reads, "To target voters in Bozeman and help ensure President Trump’s re-election … Your participation in this national effort will provide us with detailed data we need concerning Montana’s At-Large Congressional district."

"Most importantly, it will show Liberal Democrats in Congress, the radical special interests groups, and their Left-wing allies in the media that the American people support President Trump...even with the Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives," the letter continues.

The form urges recipients to "act today," impelling them to enclose $15 "to help pay for the cost of processing my Census Document" if they cannot afford an additional donation, ranging from $25 up to $1,000.

The so-called "imitation census" is putting state officials on edge about potentially confusing Montana’s more than 711,000 registered voters and by possibly dampening participation in the actual census in 2020, which comes after a tumultuous year for the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Our main concern is misinformation," said Emilie Saunders, director of communications for the Montana Department of Commerce. "Getting accurate information out is so critical. We don't want folks to think that because they respond to this mailer back in May or in September that they already responded to the census when it arrives next year."

Saunders added that the department will "immediately squash any confusion or any perceived confusion about the census."

The U.S. Census is set for delivery to the American public on April 1 – after the Trump administration mounted a controversial effort to include a citizenship question in the decennial questionnaire.

PHOTO: An "imitation census" from the Republican National Committee that asks voters for donations to President Trump's reelection campaign."
An "imitation census" from the Republican National Committee that asks voters for donations to President Trump's reelection campaign."
Montana Department of Commerce

But one Republican official pushed back against the notion that the surveys are misleading, arguing to ABC News that the "mailers are clearly marked that they are from the Republican National Committee. The mailers receive an overwhelming positive response and we continue to send each year because it performs so well."

Under the instructions, the form does state, "all individual responses will be kept confidential and only survey tallies will be shared with the White House and all our Republican leaders."

But after officials with the Department of Commerce were first made aware of the "imitation census" being distributed across at Montana’s Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Missoula counties, state officials cautioned residents about the mailers on May 9, 2019. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle first reported the state’s warning.

Last week, staff officials reissued the warning to remind Montanans that an official U.S. Census does not cost money to complete or ask for donations, are not delivered to mailboxes by political groups, and are postmarked from the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau.

"Montanans need accurate information about the Census to make sure we have a complete count of the folks who live here. A complete count means the state will get its fair share of federal funding," said Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney in a statement from Sept. 27. "An accurate and complete Census count for Montana is too important to take lightly."

This is not the first time a look-alike survey has been sent to voters by the RNC.

In 2010, a faux census form was sent to mailboxes across the country, including those belonging to a Democratic governor of Montana and a Democratic representative in Georgia, according to ProPublica.

At the time, ProPublica said that the survey did not "appear to be illegal" after being reviewed by the United States Postal Inspection Service's general counsel, who determined that "it did not violate the Deceptive Mailings Prevention Act of 1990." They also noted that the form did not "appear to violate any Federal Election Commission fundraising rules."

Democratic and Republican party officials often send mailers to voters to gauge attitudes on policy agendas – and frequently include a plug to ask for cash – but even a recent 2018 questionnaire sent from the Democratic National Committee to gather research and pitch voters to donate, according to the Baltimore Sun, was a survey and did not imitate a census form.

While the RNC mailers might mimic the real census or potentially curb participation in next year's count, legal experts say this is fairly "well-trod ground."

"This practice is terrible. It's incredibly unseemly and has all sorts of possible consequences," Adav Noti, a senior director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and a former lawyer at the FEC, told ABC News. "Should it should it be illegal or restricted? I think there's a really good argument that it should be. It should be restricted. That argument has been around for 20 years and interestingly, Congress has not taken action to crack down on this practice."

In 2010, Congress took steps to hinder this practice, which Noti says has been around for decades, by passing a law that year, the Prevent Deceptive Census Look Alike Mailings Act, to bar nongovernmental entity mailings from being labeled "census" on an envelope, outside cover, or wrapper. But Noti asserts that the laws need to go farther to prevent political parties and campaigns from impersonating federal forms.

"The laws in this area are weak, and they certainly could be stronger," he said. "The laws about charitable solicitations are quite strong, but the politicians who write laws about political solicitations, interestingly, don't write very strong laws. There are disclosure requirements and disclaimer requirements and those are great, and they serve a valuable purpose but in terms of the content of the solicitation, there aren't that many rules."

"As long as it raises money," Noti said, "the party isn't going to stop doing it."

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