A proposal to allow people to use their cell phones to donate money to their favorite political candidates has rekindled a long-running debate about the risks of abuse associated with the technology that is rapidly changing the way American political campaigns are financed.
"I think candidates could raise a ton of money that way, and I'm naturally inclined to believe people should be able to give," said a veteran Republican election lawyer. "But the flip side is that you lose some accountability."
The GOP lawyer's reservations about cell phone donations center on the potential for people to donate anonymously, opening the door for unauthorized contributors and limiting the chance for disclosure. It's something he's grappled with before. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republicans challenged what they said were fraudulent contributions to then-candidate Barack Obama's presidential campaign, which the GOP alleged had slipped through because the donations flowed as part of the tidal wave of money Obama raised over the internet.
"The money they raised over the internet was off the charts," said the Republican election lawyer."There were reports of people donating through anonymous cash cards. There were one or two who were giving well over the legal limits. Some were using names like 'Mickey Mouse' or 'Do Dad Pro.' And there was really no way to police it."
At the time, the Obama campaign said it worked aggressively to weed out and return improper donations. The questions largely subsided after the campaign was over.
But earlier this month, a group representing wireless telephone companies submitted a new request to the Federal Election Commission, proposing that candidates be allowed to use an even newer form of technology to facilitate giving – cell phone text messages.
In its proposal, the cell phone industry group has pointed out the massive amounts of charitable money raised through cell phone contributions after the Haiti earthquake. That's evidence, they argue, that this new method of giving has come into its own.
"The effectiveness of [cell phone messaging] to initiate small dollar contributions in short order was clearly demonstrated in the Haiti relief context earlier this year," the Sept. 10 petition to the FEC says. "Accordingly, [cell phones] are potentially significant tools in grassroots campaign organizing and fundraising and a means to promote small dollar support for federal candidate, party, and political committees."
The proposal would permit candidates to collect $10 contributions through texts sent by supporters. Each donor would have to agree to respond to questions certifying that the donation is legal. The donor would have to agree, for instance, that they have not given a cumulative amount more than $50 by text, that the donation is not coming from a corporation or union, and that they are not a foreign national.
Jan Baran, the campaign finance lawyer who submitted the request, said he thinks the practice will quickly become trusted and accepted. The real benefit, he said, is how easy it makes it for people to get involved in a political campaign.
"Someone could be watching the news and seeing a report about some candidate and decide right then, 'I'll send them five bucks,'" Baran told ABC News.
The proposal is consistent with existing law, he said, which already says that candidates can collect contributions of $50 or less without reporting them. "That's been the rule since 1974," he said. Moreover, he added, the wireless provider can insure the donor does not exceed a proscribed amount, and that the donation is made on a domestic cell phone, not one from overseas.
Brett Kappel, another campaign finance lawyer, said he believes it will be extremely difficult for the FEC to square this request current disclosure provisions.
"Campaign committees have a duty to collect information from all contributors and aggregate it so that if one donor gives three contributions that total more than $200 they can be itemized," Kappel said. "The way this technology works campaigns wouldn't know if multiple anonymous contributions came from one person or twenty different people."
Scott Thomas, a former FEC chairman, said he believes those concerns can be alleviated. For instance, he said, phone companies could be required to decline transactions for any cell phone where the $50 limit on anonymous contributions has been reached.
"Conceivably, the FEC could require the phone companies also to provide to benefitting campaigns electronic records showing which phone numbers and corresponding account names are associated with any batch of funds forwarded," he said.
Both parties see the potential for text messaging to provide a lucrative new avenue for candidates to raise money.
The veteran Republican election lawyer said he believes there is "an enormous upside to it," because it makes it easier for people to get engaged. "This is a medium people communicate in now," he said.
The FEC has 60 days to make a decision.