Want to Contribute to a Political Campaign Via Text? LOL Not This Year

by Rachael Myrow

The Federal Elections Commission cleared the way June 11th for political campaigns to collect small contributions from mobile phone users through text messages. Both presidential campaigns applauded, as did a gaggle of grassroots groups. But phone companies aren’t ready to applaud just yet. At least, not until some of their concerns are addressed.

Getty Images

I asked Ann Ravel, Chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, just what wireless carriers are worried about.

“They have expressed both to us and also to the Federal Elections Commission a couple of concerns. One of them is they say they don’t want users to think they are endorsing a particular political campaign that might be odious. But it seems that now their bigger concern is they fear they’re going to be held liable if some of the campaign laws are violated.”

Would anyone presume AT&T, Verizon or any other phone company supports a group just because they allow customers to text their money to it?

“I think the mobile consumers are much more savvy than that and they understand that they are just providing a service and are not endorsing particular campaigns,” Ravel says. “And if [the phone companies] are very concerned about, say, a candidate for the Nazi Party, they have the right not to sign on with them.”

I asked Ravel what she thought the chances are that people will be able to start texting donations for the election this November.

“It seems very remote that we’d be able to text during this election season, which I have to say is unfortunate,” she said. “Because one of the reasons for doing these text message contributions and why California supports it is this is one antidote to the concerns about super-PAC money and large amounts of money from big, wealthy donors in campaigns. A side benefit to it, in my view, as was shown with earthquake relief efforts, [is that] when people texted even a small amount of money, they became engaged. And…something like 56 percent of them then went on to contribute to other relief efforts, and about 50 percent of them asked family and friends to contribute to the same effort. So it’s a way to increase political engagement of people who otherwise couldn’t participate in a campaign.”

Ravel added another benefit of enabling “mobile givers” is that they are younger and more diverse racially and ethnically than traditional donors. These points echo those of Professor Jessica Levinson of Loyola Law School, who also spoke with me on this topic.

“A large number of American adults are owners of smartphones,” Ravel said. “It is important, I think, for campaign laws to come into the 21st century and encourage the use of technology and recognize that life has changed since almost 40 years ago when these campaign laws were enacted.”

A spokesman for the The Wireless Association, an industry trade group, told us phone companies are puzzled that they would be “perceived as standing in the way of political text donations,” since they put forward their own proposal to federal regulators back in 2010. The association says their concerns focus on the logistical details of the roll out and that they’ve asked the FEC for an expedited review.