IN AN ELECTION cycle marked by the emergence of multimillion-dollar contributions, everything possible should be done to encourage small-money donors. Such a proposal is now before the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which is being called on to clear the way for campaigns to solicit and receive donations through text message.
As President Obama dramatically demonstrated during the 2008 campaign, the Internet can be a powerful, and lucrative, fundraising tool. Its technological cousin, the cell phone, presents a similarly promising mechanism. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 83 percent of Americans use mobile phones, and 73 percent of those users text. According to Pew, at least 30 million Americans have texted a contribution to a charitable cause. Maryland and California allow political contributions by text message.
Two years ago, the FEC turned down a request from the wireless industry’s trade association to allow texted political contributions to federal campaigns. Another request was filed this year, and the notion of texted contributions won general approval from the agency. However, issues remain concerning whether cell phone companies have a legal responsibility to determine whether the contributions are permissible — they don’t want this headache — and what rates can be charged for the service. The FEC should resolve those in favor of encouraging small donations.
The technological wrinkles are not insurmountable. The petition pending before the FEC comes from m-Qube, a “messaging aggregator” for wireless companies; ArmourMedia, a political advertising firm; and the campaign of Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) Under the program they describe, donors who want to contribute by text message would have to certify their eligibility to make contributions — for example, that they are not foreign nationals or corporations. Texted contributions would be limited to $50 per month per political committee, the existing limit on anonymous contributions. When the total amount texted to a campaign reaches $200 — the threshold at which campaigns must list donors in their FEC reports — texted donations would be cut off until the campaign determines that it can appropriately identify the giver.
The campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney and an array of campaign finance reform groups have united in favor of permitted texted donations.
“Allowing political fundraising through text messaging would provide a new and simple way for millions of citizens to become more deeply involved in our elections,” the Brennan Center for Justice told the FEC. “The technology already exists; the commission need only flip the switch.”
The sooner that happens, the better for the political system.