Bernie Sanders has become known for his legions of diehard supporters, millions of whom have flooded his campaign with small-donor contributions. Yet many of those fans, it turns out, have become a little too supportive of the Vermont senator’s presidential bid.
For months, the Federal Election Commission has been writing to the Sanders campaign with warnings that hundreds of his donors have exceeded the $2,700 contribution limit and that hundreds more may be foreign nationals illegally giving Sanders money. The most recent, and by far the longest, letter came on Tuesday and flagged more than 1,500 questionable donors.
Other campaigns this year have also struggled to track their donors and make sure they are contributing within federal limits. Ted Cruz and Ben Carson also received multiple letters from the FEC flagging hundreds of potentially excessive donors. And in 2008, so did Barack Obama, who, like Sanders, relied on the grassroots support from millions of small-dollar contributors. But the sheer volume of potential violations by the Sanders campaign—the list flagged by the FEC ran 639 pages—appears to be unprecedented, and it suggests that the campaign’s operation has been unable to effectively manage its army of donors.
The notices from the FEC don’t necessarily implicate the campaign in illegal activity or suggest that Sanders’s presidential bid is built on financial fraud. The number of questionable donors and the amount of excessive or invalid contributions still represent a small fraction of the more than $200 million Sanders has collected from more than 2.4 million people. And the letters are only the first step in a lengthy process. They contain warnings that Sanders could face enforcement actions if the campaign doesn’t respond and file amended reports documenting that it has given back excessive or illegal contributions. The campaign has responded to each of the FEC’s previous letters and has refunded hundreds of donations; it has not been fined—although because of the lengthy adjudication process, any penalties are usually levied long after elections. As long as Sanders follows that protocol within the required time period, he wouldn’t face punishment. “It’s a challenge for a campaign that builds up to such a size in such a short amount of time, to be able to handle that,” said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics. “I’m not sure how you can avoid this. Because if you get money, you have to disclose it.”
The irony is that Sanders is running as the ethically pure candidate, and yet he’s the one who has struggled the most to comply with FEC rules. As anyone who has ever watched a Sanders stump speech can recite from memory, the average donation to his campaign is $27, and his supporters would argue that a candidate who raises $200 million in mostly small donations from average people is demonstrating broad grassroots support and is less likely to be beholden to a handful of wealthy financiers and their pet causes.
Hillary Clinton has waged the more traditional big-money campaign, using experienced “bundlers” who collect large checks from donors they’ve encouraged to “max-out” to the campaign. The system is built for that kind of fund-raising. Veteran bundlers know FEC rules to the letter and can instruct donors how much to give and when. Fewer checks—or online donations—of larger amounts are easier to process and track than a flood of $27 contributions from people who may have little-to-no knowledge of campaign-finance rules. “It’s just a different animal,” said Lisa Gilbert, the director of CongressWatch for Public Citizen and a veteran advocate for campaign-finance reform. Clinton and Sanders have raised almost the same amount of money during the primary race, but Clinton has collected it from half as many people. The FEC hasn’t flagged a single questionable donor out of more than 1.2 million to her campaign.
That hardly absolves Sanders of the blame for his thousands of overeager supporters and his campaign’s difficulty in complying with federal law. “It is not an infrastructure that most campaigns set up because they don’t have to deal with it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not doable,” Gilbert said. “You should be able to do this right. You should be able to comply and track your donations no matter how many you get and from how many people.” While many people appeared to give just a few hundred dollars more than the $2,700 limit, some donors sent thousands more than the law allows. Two people contributed more than $10,000 to the Sanders effort, and the actor Shia Labeouf gave $6,015—more than twice the legal limit. In some cases, contributions of more than $2,700 that were intended for the primary and general elections might have been misclassified for the primary.
The Sanders campaign noted that although the FEC’s list of flagged contributors may be more than 600 pages, its most recent monthly filing was more than 300,000 pages. In a statement, spokesman Mike Casca called the FEC letter “a standard inquiry.”
Due to an unprecedented number of small dollar donations, it is difficult to ensure that each of the senator's 2.4 million donors stay under the $2,700 limit. This happens so often in campaigns that the FEC’s rules specifically allow 60 days from receipt to remedy the excessive portion of the contribution. The campaign has diligently honored these refund requirements.
One factor leading to excessive donations could be that the Sanders website, like most campaigns, puts little apparent effort into making donors aware of the rules or screening for excessive contributions. A person clicking the ‘Contribute’ button that appears as soon as someone pops onto the site would have no way of knowing they couldn’t give more than $2,700. That is likely by design, Biersack said. “To make it possible to raise lots of money, especially on the Internet, you want to make it as quick and clean as you can,” he told me. “If people have to go through 15 steps in order to do it, by step 13 they’re going to quit. So that’s the balancing act.” Part of that has to do with an FEC enforcement regime that is more retrospective than proactive; there are many more rules about what the campaigns must do after they receive a donation than what they must do beforehand. The modus operandi is, as Biersack put it: “Take the money and fix it later. It’s always better to say ‘I’m sorry’ than to say ‘I can’t.’”
The Sanders campaign may not be in any legal trouble, but as a result of the FEC letters, it now has a ton of paperwork to do and refunds to hand out. There are two conclusions to draw here, and they’re not incompatible. Fairly or not, the Sanders operation simply hasn’t grown big enough or sophisticated enough to properly manage the millions of contributors that are fueling his insurgent campaign. And because of a campaign-finance system that seems built more for professional bundlers than grassroots fund-raisers, the Vermont senator is now, at least partially, a victim of his own success.