The Influence Industry: FEC offers guidance for cellphone text-message donations

August 15, 2012

A plea to text “donate” to 62262 (that’s O-B-A-M-A) may be coming to a political ad near you.

The Federal Election Commission announced Wednesday that it has approved legal guidance that will allow small political donations to be added to cellphone bills when a campaign supporter sends a specific text message.

The agency unanimously approved two opinions spelling out technical details of how the proposals from Republican and Democratic firms would comply with the complex requirements of campaign finance law. It was an unusually swift move from an agency that’s known for foot dragging and partisan gridlock.

“These proposals have engendered widespread, bipartisan support from political campaigns and reform groups alike because they offer a new and dynamic vehicle for political engagement,” FEC member Cynthia Bauerly said in a statement. “I feel strongly that making the political process more accessible to more people will help ensure full participation in our democracy, and today’s opinions represent an important step in that direction.”

Whether campaigns could start soliciting text-message donations before the November elections depends on how quickly the carriers can negotiate the details with companies providing the service to campaigns.

“They are reviewing the opinion to see if there are any remaining issues,” said Jan Baran, who heads the election law group at Wiley Rein and represented the CTIA Wireless Association, the trade group for cellphone carriers. Baran said the guidance from the agency means “the most important obstacle was removed.”

President Obama’s campaign has already aggressively pursued donations by sending text messages with links to Internet donation pages. A message at the end of July said, “President Obama needs your support more than ever. . . . Please pitch in what you can now.”

That extra step of requiring donors to enter their credit card information through a Web page could make all the difference, however. A study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that donations can be highly impulsive, with half of donors who supported disaster relief after the 2010 Haitian earthquake giving immediately upon hearing about the campaign via text. Overall, 9 percent of Americans have made charitable donations with their cellphones, contributing an estimated $43 million to disaster relief in Haiti alone.

In June, the FEC approved a plan from a bipartisan pair of political consulting firms that had support from both Obama’s campaign and that of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Wireless carriers raised objections, however, saying they didn’t want to be liable for making sure donors were American citizens or that they stayed within the $5,000 limit that one person can give directly to a political candidate. The FEC said Wednesday that campaigns and the companies working with them would bear those responsibilities.

Under the plan, contributions from a phone number would be limited to $50 in each billing period, or $200 in total. After that, the campaign would need to ask for the donor’s identity to enforce contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

Wireless carriers also wanted the ability to reject working with some political campaigns they deemed too controversial, asking the FEC to insert a line in its legal guidance saying the carriers could “refuse to sell services to candidates who, based on the wireless service providers’ business judgments, espouse views that may harm [their] brands.”

That prompted Revolution Messaging, a Democratic consulting firm that has another text-message proposal before the commission, to point out that carriers already sell “gangster rap ringtones, sex tip text messaging, pornography and horoscopes without hurting their brand images” — perhaps demonstrating that associating with political candidates can be more controversial than selling pornography.

The FEC said Wednesday that the wireless carriers “may decide, for commercial reasons, to accept only proposals from some political committees and not others.”

“We take that as a green light on this issue,” Baran said.

For previous Influence Industry columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
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