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What is ‘red-boxing’ and why is it an issue in R.I.’s congressional race?

Watchdog groups say more and more candidates are skirting campaign finance laws by posting messages intended for super PACs

First Congressional District Candidates John Goncalves, left, goes back and forth with fellow candidate J. Aaron Regunberg, right, on the topic of super PAC money as fellow candidates Sabina Matos, second from left, and Ana Quezada, second from right, listen during a debate sponsored by the Rhode Island Association of Democratic City and Town Chairs at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., on Aug. 17. The debate was moderated by Boston Globe reporters Edward Fitzpatrick and Steph Machado.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s First Congressional District race has delved into matters of climate change, defense spending, and education, but a less familiar issue is emerging as the campaign enters its final two weeks: “red-boxing.”

Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, one of 12 Democrats in the race, has accused rival Aaron Regunberg of lying about publishing — then taking down — information on his campaign website that she claims was aimed at helping a super PAC boost his candidacy. And Regunberg in turn has accused Matos and other candidates of posting information intended for super PACs backing their campaigns.

So what exactly does the term “red box” refer to, and why does it matter in this race? Here are answers to some of the fundamental questions:


What is “red-boxing”?

Red-boxing is a way for candidates to coordinate with super PACs and other outside spenders in a way that flouts campaign finance law, said Aaron McKean, legal counsel for state and local reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Currently, individuals can donate only $3,300 to a federal campaign. Those rules don’t apply to super PACs, which are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts on elections — but only if they do so independently. Those outside groups are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns, and red-boxing is a way to get around that coordination ban. The way it works is candidates post messages on their own websites or social media pages that include certain code words or messages intended for super PACs or other outside groups. McKean provided this video explanation of red-boxing.

Aaron McKean, legal counsel, state and local reform, for the Campaign Legal Center, based in Washington, D.C.Screen grab

“You might have an example where a candidate says, ‘White men over 50 need to hear and see on the go that (a candidate) supports public education,’” McKean said. The phrase “on the go” is code for digital ads on Facebook or other digital places, “need to hear” means radio ads, and “need to see” means television ads. If those communications happened face-to-face between staff for a candidate and a super PAC, that would clearly be illegal coordination, he said.


Is red-boxing illegal?

Federal law contains no specific prohibition against red-boxing, but it does prohibit coordination between candidates and super PACs that can spend unlimited amounts of money.

“Any common sense understanding of coordination law would say (red-boxing) is illegal,” McKean said. “But the Federal Election Commission has taken the view that posting all these messages publicly is not considered illegal.” Some say posting information on public websites doesn’t direct the message at one one particular audience. But the Campaign Legal Center considers red-boxing “an illegal practice by which candidates coordinate their electoral activity with outside groups.”

An FEC spokesperson declined to comment on red-boxing specifically, referring the Globe to its rules prohibiting campaigns from coordinating with outside groups. But in a recent FEC ruling related to Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper’s campaign, the commissioners dismissed a complaint over messaging the Hickenlooper campaign posted online that was later used by an outside group in a TV ad. The decision noted that the commissioners disagreed with the FEC’s legal counsel in the case.

Where is red-boxing found?

Red-boxing messages are often embedded in the “overview” or “media” sections of candidate websites, and those sections often contain video, photos, and other information that can be used by super PACs to help support a candidate, McKean said. Sometimes the messages are in hard-to-find or partially hidden sections of websites. They may also be displayed in sections literally bordered by a red box, he said.


How has red-boxing come up in Rhode Island’s special congressional election?

Matos has accused Regunberg of lying about a red box he had on his website, which has now been taken down. According to captures from the internet archive, Regunberg’s website previously had an “overview” section that referenced messages that voters should see, including a sentence that said “medium-to-high propensity Democratic primary voters, particularly liberals, women, and 50+ voters across RI-01 need to read the following.”

Matos is accusing Regunberg of coordinating with a super PAC funded by his father-in-law and mother, Progress Rhode Island, which has sent mailers out on his behalf. Her campaign filed an FEC complaint last week.

At a debate at Roger Williams University last week moderated by Boston Globe reporters, Regunberg denied ever having a red box on his website. The Matos campaign then unearthed the archived site and publicized it on Monday.

At Tuesday night’s debate at Rhode Island College, Regunberg said he had been “too definitive” in his denial last week.

“I should have chosen my words more carefully,” Regunberg said, calling it a “nuanced” issue and pointing out that other candidates, including Matos, also have red boxes on their websites.

In response to a question from the Globe about her own website, Matos said on Tuesday she is not coordinating with any of the super PACs that are supporting her.


“I’ve been transparent about the information that I share on my website,” Matos said. “It’s open for anybody to see. Anybody can go to my website and see the information that is there. Mr. Regunberg was trying to hide information because it was intended for a specific audience to go and find it and use it.”

Is red-boxing a growing phenomenon?

Yes. McKean said red-boxing first appeared in 2014 in federal campaigns, but in the last couple of years it has spread rapidly, cropping up in state and local campaigns. Former Rhode Island secretary of state Nellie M. Gorbea faced criticism during last year’s gubernatorial campaign for posting a message on her campaign website spelling out what outside groups could do to help her campaign.

Red-boxing is increasing because campaign consultants, candidates, and super PACs are figuring out how to do it in increasingly sophisticated ways, McKean said. “Red-boxing is a growing practice because people are seeing they can do it with impunity. At the federal level, the FEC has not taken action to stop these problematic practices.”

Has Rhode Island outlawed red-boxing?

Rhode Island campaign finance law prohibits coordination between independent spenders like super PACs and candidates’ campaigns, but it does not specifically outlaw red-boxing. John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said Common Cause and the Campaign Legal Center have been urging the state Board of Elections for at least four years to adopt regulations that would clarify that types of coordination — including red-boxing — violate state campaign finance law. It hasn’t happened.


Marion said the current form of red-boxing has emerged since Rhode Island last made major changes in this area of campaign finance law in 2012.

“It was hard to imagine then that super PACs and candidates campaigns would be so sophisticated as to have hidden websites and cryptic tweets,” he said. “Sign stealing is maybe as old as baseball, but the sophistication of it has increased over time. Even our Red Sox got caught using an Apple Watch.”

What is the effect of red-boxing on the integrity of campaigns?

The Campaign Legal Center argues that campaigns and super PACs are using red-boxing to undermine democracy. “Our democracy works best when elected officials answer their constituents and not wealthy special interests,” said Brendan Quinn, the nonprofit’s senior communication manager for campaign finance and ethics.

Marion said, “The independent spending in elections which was unleashed by the US Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision is supposed to be completely separate from a candidate’s campaign, and when it is coordinated it eviscerates our limits on money in politics.”

An Internet Archive screengrab from the campaign website of First Congressional District candidate Aaron Regunberg. Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos has accused Regunberg of lying about publishing — then taking down — information on his campaign website that she claims was aimed at helping a super PAC boost his candidacy. And Regunberg has accused Matos of posting information intended for super PACs backing her campaign.SCREENGRABS

A screengrab from the campaign website of First Congressional District candidate Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos. Matos has accused rival Aaron Regunberg of lying about publishing — then taking down — information on his campaign website that she claims was aimed at helping a super PAC boost his candidacy. And Regunberg has accused Matos of posting information intended for super PACs backing her campaign.SCREENGRABS

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv. Steph Machado can be reached at Follow her @StephMachado.