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FEC Unanimously Approves Political Contributions via Text Messages

This decision could mark the beginning of a new way for citizens to become more deeply involved in our elections.

  • David Earley
June 13, 2012

Paving the way for greater participation by regular citizens in our democratic processes, the Federal Election Commission on Monday unanimously approved of the use of text messages to make political contributions. This important — and welcome — development has the potential to inspire huge numbers of Americans to participate in our elections as small donors, spurring broader civic participation and providing a crucial counterweight to the fat-cat donors who currently dominate election spending. The FEC should be commended.

The FEC received numerous comment letters urging it to approve of the practice, including letters from the Brennan Center, other good government organizations, the Obama campaign, and the Romney campaign. While these groups sometimes disagree, they found consensus in supporting this common sense measure.

The FEC’s decision is good news for our elections — and democracy. Political donation via text message represents a new way for candidates to connect with voters and expand participation. As we said in our comment letter, new technologies that allow candidates to engage with voters electronically are already transforming our elections, and developments with new social media technology promise to accelerate these trends. A 2008 report from the Campaign Finance Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institution found that 28 percent of Internet users “felt more personally connected” with candidates through their online activities and 22 percent said they otherwise “would not have been involved without the Internet.” New digital technology has made it easier for the public to both become better informed about candidates and become directly involved, be it through making monetary contributions, volunteering their time, telling their friends about a candidate they support, or voting on Election Day. Modern campaigns have embraced this technology enthusiastically, and have made the use of text messaging a central part of their outreach to supporters and potential voters.

Leveraging this means of encouraging widespread participation by small donors will have a salutary effect on democracy at a time when huge majorities of Americans believe that large donors to candidates wield excessive influence over elected officials. Small political donations produce a wide range of benefits. Small donors feel a greater sense of commitment to the political process and to their candidates than those who do not give. Candidates are more likely to reach out to and engage with ordinary voters if they are capable of easily giving to the campaign. Small donations also free candidates from the corrupting influence that can result from large contributions from special interest groups.

The system is simple. To give, a donor would send a text message via a mobile device to a five or six digit number that corresponds with the campaign he or she wishes to support. The donor would then receive a response asking the donor to confirm his or her intention to give and that he or she is eligible to make a contribution under federal law. The donor would send an additional text to finalize the contribution, which would later appear on the donor’s next wireless services bill. Donors would be permitted to give in $10 increments, up to a $50 maximum per month.

The FEC addressed a number of potential issues in its advisory opinion. The $50 per month maximum ensures that donations comply with federal recordkeeping and reporting requirements, which state that donations of more than $50 must be accompanied by the donor’s name and address. Concerns that the donations might be considered impermissible corporate contributions or become improperly intermingled with corporate treasury funds were dismissed because the corporate aggregators, the companies that accept the funds, would be treated as making loans to the political committees in the ordinary course of business. Because weeks could elapse between the text message donations and the monthly bills being paid, the corporate aggregators would essentially give an advance to the political committees — based upon the amount of pledged donations — which would later be recouped once the bills were paid. As a result, the FEC found no reason to prohibit text message political donations.

It decided correctly. We applaud this decision by the FEC and hope it marks the beginning of a new way for citizens to become more deeply involved in our elections.