Sept. 23, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Rules of the Game: Texts Could Draw Small Donations

In an election increasingly defined by big money, the Federal Election Commission’s recent move to permit campaign contributions via text message strikes many as the perfect antidote.

“I really do think this is a potential game changer for the campaign finance system,” said Brett Kappel, an election lawyer with Arent Fox, who represented a pair of consulting firms that asked the FEC to clear donations via text. “I think it can bring the individual small donor back into the system, and they can play a significant role.”

Proponents of fundraising via mobile text point to a long list of benefits. Texting can tap vast numbers of small donors and raise large sums in a short amount of time, note a diverse array of political players who petitioned the FEC to approve the practice. They point to the tens of millions of dollars raised via mobile device in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. About 4.3 million Americans donated
$43 million to Haiti earthquake relief via text message, according to a January report by the Pew Internet Project.

Amid campaign finance controversies marked by sharp partisan divisions, the mobile donations plan enjoys rare bipartisan support. Those urging the FEC to approve it included the campaigns of President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“The American public has embraced texting as an important form of communication and commerce, and it is time for federal regulations to catch up,” Romney officials wrote in comments to the FEC.

But texting enthusiasts had better wait before opening the Champagne. It would take an awful lot of small contributions to offset the six- to eight-figure donations underwriting the 2012 election. That’s especially true since election laws limit anonymous contributions to $50 per month, the cap that will be placed on texted contributions.

Contrast that with the multimillion-dollar donations flowing into super PACs and politically active nonprofits in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling to deregulate political spending. The news that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife will now donate $10 million to Romney’s campaign underscores the already-disproportionate influence of wealthy donors on federal elections.

Even before the Citizens United ruling, less than one-quarter of 1 percent of Americans accounted for the vast bulk of all political contributions totaling $200 or more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The super PAC era has moved the business of raising political money into an even more elite sphere, dominated by a short list of billionaires and CEOs. Most of the $221 million raised by super PACs in this election comes from a few dozen donors giving $500,000 or more, according to the CRP.

“Look, this isn’t going to solve everything, and it’s not going to blunt the forces of super PACs and billionaires in the political process,” acknowledged Aaron Scherb, legislative program manager at Public Campaign, one of 10 government watchdog groups that joined in petitioning the FEC to approve the text messaging proposal.

Still, Scherb added, “We think this will amplify the voices of everyday Americans.”

Reform advocates have long sought to boost the participation of small donors through a variety of means, including matching funds, new technologies, tax credits and campaign contribution limits.

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