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Pony Unicorn Democrats of the World, Unite!
November 15, 2012 6:02 AM   Subscribe

What are the ins and outs of setting up an official political organization in the US?

Let's say I'm interested in setting up a political organization whose primary goal is to recruit like-minded members, disseminate information and exert influence on a specific political party.

Let's say I want to set up the Pony Unicorn Democratic Organization. The goals of the organization will be to promote the Pony Unicorn platform by trying to exert influence on the Democratic party. Activities would include writing and disseminating original articles and policy papers that promote the Pony Unicorn platform, disseminating existing articles and policy papers that promote the Pony Unicorn platform, recruiting and organizing like-minded members from around the country to form local, politically-active clubs focused on advancing the Pony Unicorn platform, and even running Pony Unicorn Democratic candidates in local and national races.

Where would I start, here, if I want to make this legit? Let's say I've done the easy parts - bought PonyUnicornDemocrats.org, set up a PonyUnicorn page at Facebook, and an account on Twitter.

Before I publicize any of those things, I'd like to know what else I should consider doing to turn the Pony Unicorn Democrats into a 'real' organization.
posted by syzygy to Law & Government (13 answers total)
 
Hire a lawyer, because if you try to run your own candidates or spend money to advocate for or against specific other candidates, you need to know a ton about the intricate details of our very complex campaign finance laws and financial disclosure requirements, or else you risk being fined and possibly jailed.
posted by decathecting at 6:06 AM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Listen to decathecting, you absolutely need a lawyer, preferably one who specializes in U.S. political, election, and campaign law. Furthermore, given that your profile indicates that you are not a resident of the US, there may well be additional complications. Lawyer, lawyer now, before you spend any more money. Given your intention to influence the Democratic party, you should already have established some contacts with party officials. Ask them to recommend a lawyer. If you don't know any party officials, you should make that a priority as well.
posted by RichardP at 6:23 AM on November 15, 2012


I'm an expatriate US citizen, just to be clear on that point. Thanks for the 'lawyer up' advice, so far. Will wait and see what other advice comes in.
posted by syzygy at 6:28 AM on November 15, 2012


Are you looking to form a Political Action Committee? A lobbying group?

It's not clear from your question what you're looking to do, but a lawyer is your first step. Don't expect it to be anything but an expensive and onerous process.
posted by dfriedman at 6:36 AM on November 15, 2012


So it's definitely smart to get a lawyer, but I'm really disconcerted to see the first two responses are "hire a lawyer" and nothing else. Is American democracy really only available to those who can afford lawyers and accountants? Should the rest of us just sit on our hands while the experts and rich folk deal with everything?

I have worked on several local election campaigns and in a variety of activist groups. In my experience, in my state, it ain't that hard.

Establishing a group like the one that you describe above doesn't require a whole lot more that what you've already done - until you start accepting donations, raising money, and running candidates. Even running a candidate in a local election isn't that complex - as long as you make sure you track and report properly all the donations you receive.

Yes, get a lawyer, especially if you hope to go big time. But don't think that this is the sort of thing you can only do with a lot of starting cash.
posted by natteringnabob at 6:37 AM on November 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


So it's definitely smart to get a lawyer, but I'm really disconcerted to see the first two responses are "hire a lawyer" and nothing else. Is American democracy really only available to those who can afford lawyers and accountants? Should the rest of us just sit on our hands while the experts and rich folk deal with everything?

My thoughts, exactly. It seems very prohibitive if the first step is to lawyer up. I'm not independently wealthy here.

It's not clear from your question what you're looking to do

What I want to do:
1. Form an organization with a specific platform whose goal is to push the platform by transforming the Democratic party from within
2. The organization should have local clubs with like-minded members who act locally
3. The organization will also disseminate information (talking points, policy papers, refutations of oppositional statements, etc.) that support the organization's platforms
4. Eventually, I'd like to see some members run for local or national office. Take, for instance, Paul Collins Broun, the reactionary Republican congressman from Georgia who ran unopposed in this election. I'd like to be able to identify races like that where we could get a Democratic candidate onto the ballot. Even if the candidate is unlikely to win, they would be able to use the publicity gained by being a Democratic candidate to push the organization's platform. And if we were lucky, we might even win a few races.
5. It would also be interesting to approach existing Democratic politicians or candidates who are like-minded and would be interested in taking up our platform in return for our organization's support.
6. At some point, this could move into collecting money and donating to election campaigns, but I guess that would be a little farther down the road. At the moment, I'd like to float a trial balloon and see what sort of response I can get, hopefully without having to sink too much of my own funds into it (I already sunk some of my own funds into campaign donations for the just-finished election).

The idea here is that 3rd parties in the US aren't really feasible, so a number of political thinkers recommend starting an organization whose goal is to influence one of the two major, existing parties from within. Think, maybe, of the Log Cabin Republicans (just the first organization that comes to mind that might be similar in nature to what I'm interested in setting up).
posted by syzygy at 6:51 AM on November 15, 2012


This sounds like the local Stonewall Dems organizations I have worked with in two states. Both filed as a 501c(4) organization and both needed a lawyer to be set up. But hey, Legal Zoom does it so maybe it isn't so bad after all.
posted by munchingzombie at 6:58 AM on November 15, 2012


munchingzombie: Yes, that sounds like an excellent example of what I'm trying to do. From the National Stonewall Democrats page at Wikipedia:
The group describes itself as "a grassroots force for social change within our movement and within our party." It has over 90 chapters throughout the United States which focus on a variety of equality issues. The national organization also operates a political action committee (PAC) which coordinates campaign contributions and support from local chapters to endorse pro-equality Democrats in federal elections.
I'd like to start out with a national organization that helps set up local chapters with perhaps an eye on setting up a PAC down the road. I was thinking a 501c(4) might be the right direction. Will have a closer look into what it takes to set one of those up.
posted by syzygy at 7:05 AM on November 15, 2012


What I want to do:

1. Form a more efficient way of dragging things behind draft animals.
2. Utilize circular components. Axles may be involved.


Seriously, these organizations exist within the Democratic party, and aren't limited to the Stonewall Democrats mentioned above. The party consists of central committees and local chapters, probably the most local of which are Democratic Clubs. Find your local one and recruit like-minded people to get involved with you. If there isn't one in your area, find one online that seems to lean in your direction and ask them how to establish a club.

But if you are thinking that you will either a) influence local races from afar or b) influence the party overall on the internet somehow, these efforts will fail. You need living, breathing people on the ground to vote and influence others to vote, on local & regional intra-party matters and for/against candidates. There's a chance these organizations already exist in your area and would welcome an infusion of energy and talent.

There's also Progressive Democrats of America.

Getting a lawyer as your first step is totally barking up the wrong tree. You need people, which means you need organizers and you need to be an organizer first. Otherwise there will be no organization for a lawyer to advise. I repeat: if you focus on the process rather than the people this will not work.
posted by univac at 7:33 AM on November 15, 2012


Is American democracy really only available to those who can afford lawyers and accountants? Should the rest of us just sit on our hands while the experts and rich folk deal with everything?

If you want to start your own organization, then yes, American democracy is prohibitively expensive. The campaign finance laws that are ostensibly meant to keep well-funded interests from dominating are, in practice, wielded as a weapon by those interests against others. It's pretty common for large lobby groups and political parties to demand inquiries into their opponents to try to shut them down. The laws are technical, complicated, and really easy to violate by accident. So yes, in our efforts to stifle the influence of the big, institutional players, we're actually stifling the influence of lots and lots of little, grassroots players. It's a mess.
posted by decathecting at 7:35 AM on November 15, 2012


You need people, which means you need organizers and you need to be an organizer first. univac is correct. Lawyers cannot help. Are yoiu trying to be grassroots or astroturf? Find like-minded people and organize an informal committee to assess the situation and discuss strategy.
posted by lathrop at 9:17 AM on November 15, 2012


Just want to make one point: There is no such thing as an 'official' political organization in the U.S.

I know that seems odd, since two parties, and an occasional third one, seem to be very 'official' indeed. They receive news coverage, are listed on ballots, etc. But no group of people assembled for the purpose of promoting political ideas is, or can ever be, more 'official' than any another.

I understand what the above posts are saying, and much of the advice is solid. But they answer different questions from the original. How to get on a ballot, report campaign financing, etc., if you choose to do these things. But I don't think I'm splitting hairs. It's an important principle of U.S. law, codified as the 'right of the people peacably to assemble.' The 1st Amendment makes no mention of 'official' assemblies.
posted by LonnieK at 9:52 AM on November 15, 2012


Thanks, folks. I signed up with the Progressive Democrats of America and am seeing where there all about, at the moment.
posted by syzygy at 10:44 PM on January 8, 2013


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