WASHINGTON – Election-year tactics like making anonymous phone calls or inventing make-believe groups to criticize the opponent now come with a higher price: the possibility of time in jail.
A law in effect for the first time this election cycle expands the list of campaign violations classified as felonies. Before the law took effect in late 2002, many campaign violations were treated as misdemeanors.
"It's much more serious than it used to be, and the consequences of getting caught are much more serious," Federal Election Commissioner (search) David Mason warned.
Now, a broader range of political mischief is prohibited by the law — which also banned the national political parties from collecting the corporate, union and unlimited donations known as soft money — and knowing and willful violations carry higher penalties under federal sentencing guidelines.
That means tricks that drew little or no punishment in the past — like a 1998 case in which California Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher's (search) GOP opponent invented a group called the East Bay Democrats and used mailings and phone calls under its name to urge people to vote against Tauscher — could mean time behind bars for a candidate or campaign officials.
The law requires any statement published by campaigns, national party committees or political action committees to include a disclaimer saying who is behind the message. It also bans candidates, political parties and PACs from calling voters, sending mass mailings or airing ads anonymously or under phony names. All must have proper disclaimers.
"So the electorate will be able to judge how much credence to give the communication based on who sent it, and the person who sent it is in fact responsible for the content," said Trevor Potter, a former FEC member who helped Sens. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold (search), D-Wis., develop the overall law.
But it won't mean an end to dirty tricks or other forms of negative campaigning.
Political strategists from both parties say they expect to see plenty in the presidential race between Republican President Bush and Democrat John Kerry, particularly in closely divided states where small gains by either side — whether it be by swinging voters their way or turning them off so they stay home — could decide the outcome.
Strategists say many of these tactics will be used by independent, partisan groups, mostly raising soft money.
Ohio voters are seeing an example this month, where outside groups — the anti-Bush MoveOn.org PAC and the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — have been running dueling ads.
The Swift Boat Veterans accuse Kerry of lying about his decorated Vietnam War record and MoveOn accuses Bush of using family connections to get into the National Guard and avoid service in Vietnam.
Don Fowler, a Kerry supporter in South Carolina and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that, judging by what's happened so far, the situation will only get worse.
"Negative politics works. If it didn't, they wouldn't do it," he said.