To “electioneer” is to actively take part in an election by working for the election of a candidate or a party.
The word is almost always used in a pejorative sense. Most of the time “electioneering” is used to suggest something tawdry, or underhanded; the word implies discomfort with the way that campaigns are carried out.
Electioneering has had a bad rap since the time of the Founding Fathers. In 1796, James Madison wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, grumbling that a statement from the French foreign minister (Pierre Auguste Adet) was being dismissed as mere electioneering. Madison wrote:
Adêts Note which you will have seen, is working all the evil with which it is pregnant. Those who rejoice at its indiscretions and are taking advantage of them, have the impudence to pretend that it is an electioneering manoeuvre, and that the French Govt. have been led to it by the opponents of the British Treaty.
A few years later, John Adams wrote at length about the problem with electioneering. Adams was also writing to Thomas Jefferson. His 1814 letter complains that electioneering is taking over just about everything – and he expects it to get worse. Adams wrote:
I dare not look beyond my Nose, into futurity. Our Money, our Commerce, our Religion, our National and State Constitutions, even our Arts and Sciences, are So many Seed Plotts of Division, Faction, Sedition and Rebellion. Every thing is transmuted into an Instrument of Electioneering. Election is the grand Brama, the immortal Lama, I had almost Said, the Jaggernaught, for Wives are almost ready to burn upon the Pile and Children to be thrown under the Wheel.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson issued an executive order barring all federal workers from doing anything which would “influence the votes of others, nor take part in the business of electioneering.” Jefferson’s executive order is often seen as the forerunner of the Hatch Act, which puts strict limits on the political activities of government employees at all levels.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 differentiated between electioneering and what it called “issue-related speech,” arguing that electioneering was not entitled to First Amendment protections because it involved an individual candidate or party, rather than an idea. That distinction has not been universally accepted, but it explains why legally, ads defined as “electioneering” can be restricted.
In 2012, for example, a US District Judge found that a series of ads produced by the Hispanic Leadership Fund should be classified as “electioneering communication.” The judge found that the ads in question seemed to implicitly endorse President Obama and could, therefore, be restricted during the 60 days before the election.
The judge also rejected the claim made by the Hispanic Leadership Fund that the electioneering communication disclosure provisions violated constitutional rights to political speech and to due process. In his decision, the judge wrote in part,
“Both the Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit have made clear that [the Federal Election Campaign Act’s] disclosure requirements for electioneering communications are constitutional because they are justified by the public’s interest in knowing who is speaking about a candidate during the election period.”