- US climate activists are recruiting their counterparts in Germany in a last-ditch effort to keep Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid — and his Green New Deal — viable in 2020.
- The German activists pledged to make up to 10,000 calls to voters in Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and Illinois before Tuesday’s primary elections in those states.
- Election law and campaign finance experts say the volunteer activities appear to be above board, although a co-founder of Germany’s Fridays for Future, whose members helped organize the efforts, says they weren’t authorized by the group.
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As Sen. Bernie Sanders presses on in what increasingly looks like a doomed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, climate activists across the globe are doing their best to keep his candidacy afloat.
Young American climate activists are working to recruit environmental activists from Germany to rally support for Sanders through phone banking in key primary states.
Members of Germany’s largest climate advocacy group, “Fridays for Future” (FFF), are using WhatsApp chat groups to recruit volunteers for Sanders. The groups are open to anyone and once in, anyone can send messages to the group.
“In the US, our friends from Sunrise Movement, Youth Climate Strike, and Zero Hour have rallied behind Bernie Sanders,” an FFF coordinator wrote, according to a message obtained by Business Insider.
The person went on to explain that Sanders has the most ambitious climate policy in the Democratic field — the Green New Deal — a far-reaching set of climate and economic policy proposals.
“Do you want to help Bernie win the White House?” they continued. “Text me, if you want to help.”
Those interested were then invited to join another WhatsApp group, where they were given further instructions. By last Friday afternoon, the group had about 90 participants. The leaders emphasized that phone banking is a crucial part of Sanders’ efforts to overcome former Vice President Joe Biden’s delegate lead in the primary.
At 8 pm on Thursday, two members of an organization called “Germany For Bernie” used the video conferencing software Zoom to train potential volunteers. They explained how to use the phone banking system and showed them the script they’d need to follow.
The leaders performed several mock phone conversations with different types of voters ranging, including both supporters and critics of Sanders. Later, another member of the group introduced a system called “Spoke,” which can be used to target voters via text messages.
The members of the WhatsApp group committed themselves to calling 10,000 people by Tuesday, when primary elections are scheduled to take place in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio. (Ohio has since closed its polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic). And some of the group members said they were willing to recruit additional volunteers for the campaign through Fridays for Future’s European network.
Sanders is predicted to fall short in all of Tuesday’s contests, giving Biden a potential fast-track to the nomination.
Carla Reemtsma, a spokesperson for Germany’s chapter of Fridays for Future, confirmed she’s aware of the American groups’ outreach to German activists on behalf of the Sanders campaign. But she distanced the group from any of the work done for the Sanders campaign, arguing that the efforts weren’t officially condoned by the German organization.
“Apparently, climate activists from the US, including ZeroHour, Youth Climate Strike, and Sunrise Movement, have reached out to activists over here in order to promote Bernie Sanders,” Reemtsma told Business Insider, adding, “These actions are not happening in the name of Fridays for Future Germany.”
Youth Climate Strike’s communications director, Neha Desaraju, told Insider the group “hasn’t officially reached out to anyone outside the US” and has only opened up its phone banking efforts to its organizers, none of whom are in Germany.
Zero Hour and the Sunrise Movement didn’t respond to Insider’s request for comment in time for publication.
The ethics of foreign influence
Foreign interference in US elections has become a central issue in recent years. In the 2016 presidential election campaign, Russia had — successfully — exerted massive influence to support then-candidate Donald Trump and to harm his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
And last month, federal authorities informed the Sanders campaign that the Russian government has attempted to interfere in the 2020 primaries to help Sanders win the Democratic nomination.
But, in this case, experts say the foreign involvement on behalf of the Sanders campaign appears to be above board. Under US federal election law, foreign entities and individuals aren’t allowed to contribute funds in American elections. But foreign nationals are permitted to volunteer for a candidate or campaign, so long as they don’t act in a managerial or decision-making role.
“It’s perfectly legal under US federal campaign finance law for foreign nationals to volunteer for candidates, so long as the volunteer isn’t in a campaign decision-making role,” Paul Ryan, a campaign finance expert at the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, told Insider.
The Sanders campaign, which didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment, has run into issues with foreign supporters in the past.
Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign was forced to pay a $14,500 fine to the Federal Election Commission to settle a complaint after it accepted campaign help from members of the Australia Labor Party, which paid the volunteers’ expenses and stipends.
Because the Australian volunteers were compensated, their efforts to help Sanders were considered a violation of federal election law, which bars foreign nationals from giving anything of value to an American candidate or election.
The Sanders campaign settled the complaint, didn’t agree that it violated any laws, and said the campaign staffers managing volunteers didn’t believe the Australians would be barred from helping because they were compensated.
But Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, argued that the Trump campaign has not been held accountable for some of its alleged violations of campaign finance law during the 2016 race — potentially setting a new, more relaxed precedent for foreign influence in presidential races.
She pointed to the Trump campaign’s partnership with Cambridge Analytica, which reportedly employed dozens of foreign nationals to work on its political efforts in the US. Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission has been without a quorum for months and is unable to carry out its watchdog and enforcement duties, which include investigating wrongdoing on campaigns.