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Texting donations to political campaigns could catch on

New rules by the Federal Election Commission could make it cheaper for campaigns large and small to solicit donations by cellphone.

Updated: 2012-09-24T14:16:57Z

By SCOTT CANON

The Kansas City Star

There’s money in them thar thumbs.

Much the same way Americans tapped out impulsive donations from their cellphones to send disaster aid after Haiti’s hurricane and Japan’s tsunami, they now text money to dump Obama or sink Romney.

New rules undergoing refinement by the Federal Election Commission could make text message contributions an even more efficient way to snatch up small, impulsive donations.

“This could make them a little more tempting,” said Mark Nevins, a political consultant to Democratic candidates, including Missouri congressional challenger Teresa Hensley of Raymore.

The Hensley campaign hasn’t passed the hat through texting yet. There’s a cost to cranking up any new form of fundraising. And a significant portion of money texted to candidates has been gobbled up in transaction fees. But Nevins said the new rules could change how campaigns view the mobile phone.

The FEC approved text message donations in June. In August, both major presidential campaigns started soliciting text-messaged dollars.

Still, the government’s OK of the new fundraising technology left both campaigns and wireless carriers unsure about how the specifics of campaign finance rules would apply.

So the carriers and the aggregators who handle the transactions took the same skim of 30 to 50 percent off the donations that they have with, say, the purchase of ringtones.

AT&T then asked the FEC if it could charge less. It feared if it simply went ahead and shaved the fees, the move could be interpreted as a form of political contribution from the company.

The FEC last week ruled the cell companies could give the campaigns a break, as long as they gave the same lower rates to all campaigns.

That cheered some finance reform groups that see texting as a way to seed American politics with more small-dollar grass roots money.

“It’s a quick and easy way to give money,” said Aaron Scherb, a lobbyist for Public Campaign, which aims to reduce the role of special interest money in politics. “It gets more people involved.”

The new rules allow for more of the money to go straight to campaigns. Just how much the transaction surcharges will drop is uncertain. They could be a flat fee for every texted donation, or a smaller percentage.

“If we are allowed to charge a lower rate,” said Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for Overland Park-based Sprint Corp, “we’re going to come up with a rate that’s applicable and fair for all the parties.”

Texted donations lure campaigns because they can entice people to give money to a cause on the spot. Imagine a political rally or a television commercial that includes a pitch to send a text to donate. Anybody at the event or sitting on their living room couch need only reach for the phone.

No need to go to a desktop or fire up a laptop. Just send a text. The donation shows up on the customer’s monthly wireless bill. Depending on the pitch, the donation can range from $1 to $20. They’d show up essentially anonymously in campaign coffers. A campaign that saw an unusual amount of money would need to perform an audit to make sure they don’t exceed legal donation limits.

The problem with the fledgling form of campaign money-hunting was the cut taken for passing along the virtual dollars. Sure, a campaign might land money it otherwise wouldn’t, but it would run the risk of cannibalizing leaner ways of collecting money.

“It’s not here yet, but I think it’s going to be a very big part of things to come,” said Jeff Roe, a Kansas City-based Republican political consultant. “It’s hard to beat the functionality to be able to give right away.”

He sees the technology as a natural evolution. Not long ago, online fundraising was a nerdish novelty. By 2008 it played a big part in putting Barack Obama in the White House.

Still, Roe sees text donations as important in the near future for only the largest of campaigns. In fact, even donating on a desktop creates a problem for congressional-level campaigns. There’s typically a small vendor’s fee trimmed from click-through donations.

“You’ll hear people say, ‘Don’t go through the website, just send a check directly to us,’ ” he said.

An Overland Park firm that started up two months ago offers political campaigns and other outfits that work on donations a mobile-friendly system for collecting money. RAZ Mobile charges a $29 monthly fee to set up the sites and collects 6 percent of any donations. Founder Dale Knoop said that delivers more money to an organization and gives it a more efficient way to solicit the donors for more money.

“We get more of that money to the place it’s supposed to go,” he said.

Even the companies that make money handling texted payments told the FEC they supported the change. It might reduce their share of transactions, but it could make them players in more transactions. Donors, after all, could be more likely to text over a few dollars if they thought most of the money would get to their favorite candidate.

“By allowing citizens to make small-dollar contributions via mobile, we are empowering millions of Americans to make their voices heard in the electoral process,” said Darcy Wedd, the president of payvia. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns use payvia to process their text donations.

“Candidates can focus more on getting their message out, and less on dedicated fundraising efforts.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send email to scanon@kcstar.com.

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