Monday, January 25, 2010

Can Candidates Accept Text Contributions?

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Americans are donating to the Haiti relief effort at unprecedented levels through text messaging, but can congressional candidates use them same technology to solicit contributions? For now, the answer appears to be “no.”

To help in the earthquake’s aftermath, people can contribute $10 by texting “Haiti” to 90999. The donation is added as a charge to their cell phone bill and then the carrier writes a check to the Red Cross.

It may be the “new stream of philanthropy,” a Verizon Wireless spokesman told the Associated Press, but there are some significant roadblocks before federal candidates can do the same thing.

First of all, candidates and campaign committees need to collect basic information about all donors including their name, address, and occupation. This is not necessarily prohibitive but candidates would need to establish a “best effort” to obtain the information after the contribution, according to a Federal Election Commission spokesman. This is more of a practical roadblock than a legal one.

But more importantly, collecting political contributions via text messaging may run afoul of the law because corporations are prohibited from being conduits for contributions. In order for the transaction to work, cell carriers such as Verizon, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, or AT&T would have to collect the contribution on the bill and then write a check to the particular campaign.

Keep in mind, the FEC has not issued a formal advisory opinion on the matter of accepting contributions via text (mainly because no candidate has requested one). Until that time comes, we won’t have a definitive answer on the legality of the issue.

“If it’s legal, someone will find a way to get it done,” according to one GOP fundraiser.