FEC poised to approve lower rates for text contributions

AT&T’s proposed restructuring of rates for campaign text donations is near fruition. In a draft advisory opinion released Thursday, the Federal Election Commission said the wireless carrier could charge campaigns lower rates to process text message contributions.  

AT&T was concerned offering campaigns lower rates would constitute illegal, in-kind contributions, per previous FEC text-to-donate advisory opinions. Lower fees could make the service more accessible to smaller political campaigns and committees.  

“Here, the rate structure that AT&T proposes to establish for processing text message contributions to political committees reflects commercial considerations and does not reflect considerations outside of a business relationship,” the draft AO reads. “Accordingly, the Commission concludes that AT&T's proposal will not cause AT&T to make in-kind contributions to the political committees.”

So long as discounts are made available to all campaigns on equal terms, they won’t constitute in-kinds.

Traditionally, mobile content providers receive only 50 to 70 percent of fees paid by customers—a standard applied to campaign text donations. But AT&T argued in its proposal that the political donation model “represents a new paradigm” because donors “reasonably will expect that most of their contribution is going to the political candidate or committee” and “do not want a significant portion of their [contributions] siphoned off to the aggregators and wireless [service] providers.”

Campaign contributions of $1, $2, $5, $10, $15 and $20 will be possible through AT&T should the commission vote to approve its draft AO, as is anticipated next week. Service costs have yet to be determined but will either be a percentage of the contribution amount, a flat per text message charge or some combination of the two—“significantly less” than commercial charges but more than is taken from charity donations.

AT&T will also gauge transaction nature, volume, dollar amount and processing time before finalizing the rate structure.

Despite the civic-minded gesture, AT&T stated plans to receive a return on text donations with its new model.

Backing AT&T’s request, Verizon Wireless commented, “Verizon Wireless believes that the unique nature of these political contributions could justify a new and lower rate structure for them and that this new rate structure would not constitute an in-kind contribution.” The carrier withdrew its own AO when AT&T’s was posted for comment.

ArmourMedia, the political ad firm that set political text-to-donate in motion with its original advisory opinion request, commented in support of AT&T’s request, as have advocacy groups Public Campaign and Public Citizen.

“Mobile technology has allowed more Americans than ever to join in and be a part of our highest elections,” wrote Mark Armour, founder of ArmourMedia. “We believe that our democracy is stronger when all Americans have the right to let their voices be heard.”

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