Democratic lawyer Marc Elias emerged as a liberal hero on Twitter in the months leading up to the election as Democrats fought Republicans over vote-by-mail policies. And after Election Day, as Trump attempted to dispute the results, Elias’ profile continued to grow through viral tweets about the president’s poor showing in the courts, making heavy use of the siren emoji.
“Marc E. Elias protected our democracy and American voters. Marc is our national hero!,” one person wrote in a graphic celebrating Elias reaching 300k Twitter followers. “Marc Elias is Ironman,” declared Julie Cohen, co-director of the movie RBG. “Are they going to name you Secretary of Kicking Ass? They should,” suggested verified Twitter account holder Eric Garland. Lawyer and self-described “extreme centrist” Neal Katyal tweeted that “Marc Elias is a true American hero.”
But before Elias became known as a hero for democracy for helping Democrats prevail over Trump’s lawsuits, he led efforts to weaken campaign finance laws and open the door for big donors to have more influence in politics, including efforts conducted in partnership with the Republican Party. Many of the campaign finance policies Elias has pushed over the years have been vehemently opposed by nonpartisan good government groups with missions to defend democracy and prevent corruption.
In 2014, Elias, as a representative of the Democratic National Committee, partnered with the Republican National Committee on a multi-pronged effort to allow the two major parties to raise more money from wealthy donors. Elias and his fellow DNC lawyers co-authored along with their Republian counterparts an advisory opinion request to the Federal Election Commission asking for the parties to be allowed to raise private funds in excess of their contribution limits for their conventions. Despite comments in opposition from public interest groups Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, and Public Citizen, which said the request was about “opening new and potentially corrupting avenues of special interest money,” the FEC sided with Elias and his partners and said the parties could raise the funds.
Elias then worked with Congress to dramatically further increase the amount the parties could take from big donors. According to Politico, Elias worked with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) chief of staff David Krone on a legislative rider that expanded the amount individual donors can give to each of the parties’ various committees from $97,200 to a total of $777,600 per year or $1,555,200 per two-year election cycle. The rider, which was developed in partnership with former House Speaker John Boenher (R-Ohio), said that the party committees could raise funds for new building accounts and legal accounts, and tripled the amount that donors could give to those new funds. It also increased the amount PACs can give to the party organizations.
The rider has almost certainly benefited Elias and his firm directly in the past six years. It allowed a donor to give up to $291,000 each year to each party’s legal and recount funds, and Elias is the chair of the political law group at Perkins Coie, which has a near-monopoly on providing legal representation to Democrats. It’s impossible to know how much money Elias earns, and he did not respond to a request for comment, but Perkins Coie earns millions in legal fees from the Democratic party committees that benefited from the rider.
The DNC Services Corporation, DCCC, and DSCC paid Perkins Coie a combined $27.9 million in the 2020 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The amount Perkins Coie earned from the DNC increased dramatically in the years following the rider’s enactment. It was paid a maximum of $1.4 million in the 2012 and 2014 cycles, but it got $6.7 million in 2016, $5.8 million in 2018, and $9.2 million in 2020.
In 2011, Elias represented Facebook in a request to the FEC for an exemption from the requirement to include “paid for” disclosures on political advertisements, arguing that it was impractical for the digital ads to contain the additional text. Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 opposed the request in a comment, noting that it “would deny the electorate information and insure that the voters are uninformed about the person or group who is speaking.” The RNC submitted a comment agreeing with Elias’ request to exempt Facebook from the disclosure requirement. The FEC deadlocked on Elias’ Facebook proposal, but the company proceeded as if it was exempt, possibly helping foreign agents run political ads in the U.S. without detection.
Elias had represented Google in a similar FEC request for a disclosure exemption in 2010, which the agency agreed to by a vote of 4-2.
Elias was also behind the creation of super PACs, having submitted the 2010 advisory opinion request that prompted the FEC to say that PACs that are independent from candidates and don’t donate to candidates can raise and spend unlimited money from corporations, union, and individuals, under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and subsequent cases. The first organization to agree with Elias in the FEC docket was Club for Growth, a conservative political group with ties to the Koch money network that operates a super PAC that spends millions each election cycle to back Repubican candidates.
Years later, in 2015, Elias was behind an effort to get the FEC to allow super PACs to work more closely with candidates, despite a ban on coordination that technically exists in the law. On behalf of House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, Elias sought to have the FEC say that prospective candidates can “participate fully” in the creation of new single-candidate super PACs, that campaign staffers can raise money for single-candidate super PACs that back their candidate, and that candidates can solicit donations at fundraising events for super PACs that spend money to support them, among other things. Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 submitted a comment saying that they believed the activities Elias’ letter sought approval for were illegal, but the FEC determined that candidates and super PACS can engage in many of the activities Elias described in his request, while also deadlocking on some of the questions.
In another blow to the separation between super PACS and candidates, Elias authored a memo in 2016 for the Clinton campaign theorizing that the super PAC Correct the Record could coordinate directly with the campaign on rapid response communications and research activities. Campaign Legal Center’s director of federal reform Brendan Fischer told MapLight, a nonprofit, that Correct the Record’s coordination with the Clinton campaign was illegal and said it was “a brazen attempt to undermine campaign finance laws.”
Elias was also a participant in the Demoratic Party’s apparent effort to throw the 2016 primary nomination to Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Democratic National Committee member Donna Brazile wrote in a 2017 book that Elias was copied on a document with Robby Mook and Amy Dacey, the former CEO of the DNC, that “specified that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised.”
Elias launched a new group recently called Democracy Docket Action fund, which is raising money through Act Blue. The group “shines a spotlight on voter suppression and offers expert opinion on how to fight it in all of its forms,” according to its website.
A number of billionaires made use of the higher party contribution limits Elias worked for to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to the DNC and the RNC this election cycle. DNC megadonors include Renaissance Technologies executives James Simons and Henry Laufer, as well as A.R.T. Advisors founder Aaron Sosnick. The RNC’s big donors include Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, and Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren.