Alexa users can make donations of at least $5 and up to $200 to campaigns, and the feature is currently limited to presidential campaigns. Campaigns can sign up starting Thursday.
The latest evolution in campaign technology raises new questions about how such contributions will be screened to make sure they are legal. And it points to challenges federal regulators face in keeping up with such innovations without a functioning Federal Election Commission, which lost its voting quorum last month.
Alexa Political Contributions is among the new features Amazon announced Wednesday to help users find more information about the 2020 presidential election, including how candidates are polling, candidate endorsements and the dates of primary contests. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Donations will be made through Amazon Pay, which uses the credit card or bank account saved with a user’s Amazon account. The Alexa user also needs to allow voice purchasing.
Amazon will charge campaigns a processing fee of 2.9 percent plus 30 cents per donation, Amazon spokeswoman Kerry Hall said.
There are a number of questions about exactly how the system would work, and any potential legal concerns that may arise.
For example: What if a family member makes a donation using a shared Amazon account tied to another person’s credit card? Or a house guest who is not legally allowed to make political donations under U.S. law?
Amazon’s Q&A page clarifies that there are restrictions on who can make political contributions. Hall said Alexa will verbally list requirements to donate to political campaigns and will ask the customer to confirm they are eligible to donate.
To prevent unintended donations, users can set up a verification code that they recite to Alexa before the donation is processed, Amazon says. But setting it up is optional.
“Certainly, as people expect voice assistant devices to do tasks for them, I could see why this is attractive,” said Richard Hasen, an elections law expert at the University of California at Irvine. “But I do think it raises a number of legal concerns that will have to be fully fleshed out to develop such a system.”
It’s unclear how many campaigns would participate. At least one presidential campaign — that of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — said Wednesday that it is in talks with Amazon. (The campaign didn’t say whether it has concerns about the risk that donors could mispronounce the candidate’s last name.)
The company will not report directly to the FEC or make donor information public, Hall said. Instead, it will provide to campaigns the donors’ name, email address and physical address, Hall said.
Federal regulations allow commercial vendors to process donations for campaigns as long as they meet certain requirements.
Those include processing the donations through accounts separate from the corporation, and making sure there are adequate screening procedures to make sure that the contributions are being made legally, said campaign finance lawyer Dan Petalas, formerly the FEC’s acting general counsel and head of enforcement.
Still, it would be a good idea for a company like Amazon to seek an advisory opinion from the FEC, Petalas said. Such opinions provide assurances to campaigns, donors and firms that a creative business proposal meets regulations, and help ward off baseless complaints to the FEC, he said.
Yet the agency is unable to release official guidance or conduct official business after it lost its voting quorum with the resignation of vice chairman Matthew Petersen. President Trump has not yet announced a plan to nominate new commissioners.
“No doubt the rapidly evolving technological context in which people conduct their affairs is a challenge for regulatory agencies to keep pace with, but in this instance I think the FEC would be well suited to address any questions and likely would approve the proposal,” Petalas said. “But unfortunately it is not in a position to do so until the White House acts to restore the agency’s quorum.”