When Republicans' fake-census efforts go too far

In 2010, Republicans tried to use the official Census as the basis for a misguided fundraising scheme. In 2020, their efforts are quite a bit worse.
An "imitation census" mailed by the Republican National Committee to addresses in Bozeman, Montana that also solicits money for President Donald Trump's reelection.
An "imitation census" mailed by the Republican National Committee to addresses in Bozeman, Mo. that also solicits money for President Donald Trump's reelection.Montana Department of Commerce
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By Steve Benen

Facebook has gone to unsettling lengths recently to make the right happy, but this week, the social-media giant couldn't let the Republicans' fake-census efforts go unchallenged. Reuters reported:

Facebook Inc on Thursday removed ads by President Donald Trump's re-election campaign that asked users to fill out an "Official 2020 Congressional District Census" because the ads violate the company's policy against misinformation on the government's census.

This was clearly the right call. Those who clicked on the "Official 2020 Congressional District Census" ad were, naturally, directed to a website in which people were encouraged to donate money to Donald Trump's re-election campaign.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, this was "the first time the company removed a Trump campaign ad for violating its census interference policy."

But while the Republicans' online scheme has been rejected by Facebook, it's far more difficult to stop the party's related direct-mail scheme. As we discussed last week, the Republican National Committee and Trump's re-election campaign have been sending out materials labeled "2020 Congressional District Census" inside envelopes that read, "Do Not Destroy. Official Document."

As the L.A. Times reported, the RNC's questionnaire is printed on "blue-tinted paper similar to the type used by the real census."

Making matters slightly worse, the Republicans' document includes this specific appeal at the bottom, separate from the request for a campaign contribution, alongside an unchecked box: "I cannot send a donation at that level right now. But I am enclosing $15 to help pay for the cost of processing my Census Document."

It led the DNC to argue, "That's a political donation disguised as a government processing fee."

For those who may not be familiar with political fundraising, it's worth emphasizing that parties, candidates, and campaign committees routinely send out surveys and questionnaires to prospective donors. There's research that shows that people like being asked for their opinions, and when they send back their completed forms, they're more likely to include a contribution.

What's problematic in this case is that the Republican National Committee didn't just send a questionnaire; it sent a questionnaire that seems designed to resemble Census Bureau materials. It is, in other words, a highly unfortunate trick.

When the L.A. Times asked the RNC for comment, it referred questions to Donald Trump's re-election campaign. When the newspaper sought comment from Team Trump, it didn't want to talk about why the materials included multiple "census" references.

Imagine that.

There are practical considerations to keep in mind. If, for example, Americans see actual materials from the Census Bureau, and discard them because they think the documents are part of an RNC scheme, the response rate could be lower, which is problematic for all sorts of reasons.

But making matters just a little worse, this isn't even the first time the Republican National Committee has pulled this stunt. Readers who've been with me a very long time may recall some of my coverage from 2010, when the RNC also sent out deceptive fundraising mailings, with envelopes that included text such as "Census Document" and, in all caps, "DO NOT DESTROY/OFFICIAL DOCUMENT."

In an interesting twist, some congressional Republicans were not pleased at the time. Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said of officials from his own party, "They're trying to be deceptive, and it outrages me." Then-Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) also requested that his party discontinue its fake-census mailings.

A decade later, is there any chance congressional Republicans will express similar concerns now?

Update: I heard from an RNC spokesperson who said in a written statement, "This is a standard direct mail piece that has been utilized for decades. These mailers are fully compliant with the law, clearly marked as a fundraising solicitation from the Republican National Committee, and in no way resemble the official government census. We are adding language to future mailers to make it even more obvious."