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Déjà Vu: Dems Call For Investigation Into GOP ‘Census’ Fundraising Mailer

May 14, 2019 11:26 a.m.

The GOP has been sending out a form that, at first glance, appears to be a census form. It is not. It is, in fact, simply a fundraising mailer.

These mailers recently got some attention on Twitter, but this form has been a GOP tradition for years — and was the subject of TPM coverage way back in 2010.

This year’s iteration comes in an envelope marked “Do Not Destroy” and “Official Document.” The enclosed materials include a document tracking code. The form is titled “2019 Congressional District Census”; beneath that label, in smaller font, it reads “Commissioned by the Republican Party.”

“Preparing for the 2020 Presidential Election is going to take a massive grassroots effort all across America,” the document begins. “That is why President Trump has requested that a Census of every Congressional District be conducted immediately.”

It seems that the form is using the term “census” interchangeably with “survey,” which, in fact, is what the mailer is — a series of questions about policy issues along with a request to donate to the RNC. “The mailers receive an overwhelming positive response and we continue to send each year because it performs so well,” an RNC official told the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay.

Political parties using misleading packaging to trick would-be donors into opening their fundraising mailers is hardly a new strategy. (“NOT asking for money” reads the subject line of one May 7 email from the DCCC that in fact sends readers to a survey about policy issues that ends with an ask for money.) But this RNC mailer goes further than the rest by masquerading as an official form — filling out the actual census is mandatory.

And any census-related fundraising stands out this year, as Tierney Sneed notes in her voting rights primer, given the fact that the census is the topic of some political debate in 2019. As TPM readers well know, the Supreme Court is considering whether or not to allow the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship to the census, a move that research suggests could decrease self-response by 2.2 percent — largely in immigrant-heavy, Democratic-leaning areas, with implications for redistricting and political representation.

Back in 2010, during the last decennial census, TPM noticed that the RNC was sending a fundraising mailer labeled “Census Document.” At the time, TPM’s Zachary Roth reported that members of both parties worried that the mailers could cause confusion and reduce the response rate for the actual census. By a vote of 416–0, the House moved to ban such fundraising forms unless they came with a disclaimer. Even Republican members of Congress denounced the mailer. Yet a week later, the GOP sent another mailer with the fine print “This is not a U.S. government document.” Asked for comment at the time, a spokesperson said that because the new iteration of the form didn’t say “census” on the envelope, it did not violate Congress’ new law.

The next day, Democrats called for the postmaster general to open an investigation, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) suggested he was ready to “speak out.”

We’re back there again, with Democrats — in fact, two of the same Democrats, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Wm. Lacy Clay (D-MO) — calling for the postmaster general to investigate, alleging that these mailers violate the Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act. But this time, Democrats are alone in raising concerns.

(A spokesperson for the postal service told TPM that the postmaster general has not yet received or taken action on the Democrats’ letter.)

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