Volunteer Web Designer’s Creation of Website for Political Committee Was Not a Reportable Contribution

by Franczek Radelet P.C.
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[author: Maria Mazza]

In Sorock v. Illinois State Board of Elections, in a case of first impression, the Appellate Court held that a self-employed web designer’s creation of a website for a political committee supporting a tax rate increase for a school district was not a reportable contribution pursuant to the Illinois Election Code.

Political committees are subject to reporting requirements which are triggered upon receipt of a “contribution,” as defined in the Election Code. Section 9-1.4(A)(1.5) of the Election Code defines “contribution” to include “a gift, subscription, donation, dues, loan, advance, deposit of money, or anything of value that constitutes an electioneering communication.” Section 9-14(A)(4) of the Election Code also provides that contribution includes “the services of an employee donated by an employer…except that any individual services provided voluntarily and without promise or expectation of compensation from any source shall not be deemed a contribution.” Under the Election Code, a political committee which accepts contributions or expends more than $3,000 during any 12-month period must periodically report its contributions and expenditures to the Board of Elections.

In Sorock, a self-employed web designer had voluntarily created a website for a local political committee without any promise or expectation of compensation. Sorock raised two arguments in support of his contention that the services rendered by the web designer constituted a reportable contribution under the Election Code.

First, Sorock argued that the web designer’s contribution constituted an “electioneering communication,” which was reportable pursuant to Section 9-1.4(A)(1.5) of the Code. The Appellate Court rejected this argument.

An “electioneering communication” under Section 9-1.14(a) of the Election Code is a “broadcast, cable or satellite communication, including, radio, television or internet communication” that refers to: (1) a clearly identified question of public policy that will appear on a ballot; (2) made within 60 days before a general election or consolidated election; (3) targeted to the relevant electorate; and is (4) an appeal to vote for or against a clearly identified candidate, political party or question of public policy.

Sorock argued that the website met the elements of an “electioneering communication.” The Appellate Court, however, found Sorock’s argument unpersuasive. Sorock confused the volunteer’s time in constructing a website with actual communication, as there was a difference between creating a platform for a message and creating the content of a message. Accordingly, the Appellate Court held that the volunteer’s creation of a website was not an “electioneering communication” under the Election Code and, thus, was not reportable.

The Appellate Court also rejected Sorock’s second argument—that the volunteer’s creation of a website was a reportable contribution because the volunteer was self-employed and, thus, outside of the reporting exemption set forth in Section 9-1.4(A)(4) of the Election Code. Section 9-1.4(A)(4) of the Election Code defines a reportable “contribution” to include the services of an employee donated by an employer, in which case the contribution shall be listed in the name of the employer, except that individual services provided voluntarily and without promise or expectation of compensation from any source shall not be deemed a contribution. 10 ILCS 5/9-1.4(A)(4).

Sorock argued that the exemption language contained in this section only applied when there was an employer-employee relationship and was not applicable when the contribution was made by a person who is self-employed. While the first clause of this section applies to the scenario where an employer sends an employee to provide volunteer services (in which case the employer would be effectively contributing the employee’s wages or salary, requiring a reportable contribution in this amount), the second clause concerns “any individual services” and is not limited to a particular employment status. Therefore, the Appellate Court held that the volunteer’s creation of a website qualified for the reporting exemption in Section 9-1.4(A)(4) of the Code.

Despite this ruling, a political committee should tread carefully when accepting volunteers and donations to ensure they are not running afoul of the reporting requirements of the Election Code.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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