Questions surround text-to-donate

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Setting up a text-to-donate regime in time for political campaigns to cash in before November looks increasingly like a long shot.

The issue is on the agenda for the Federal Election Commission’s open meeting slated for Thursday, but several analysts point to the litany of issues presented in the advisory opinion request from CTIA—the wireless industry trade group.    

The full text of the AOR, which was submitted to the FEC earlier this month and posted on the commission’s website Friday, is well worth a read. In order to determine the feasibility of text-to-donate campaigns, the wireless carriers want more clarity from the FEC on its ruling permitting candidates to accept contributions via text message.

CTIA wants the FEC to clarify which party is responsible for determining the eligibility of contributors, along with ensuring that wireless carriers are not tasked with compliance. Its AOR asks the FEC to explicitly assign such responsibilities “to the connection aggregators and the participating political committees alone.”  

The AOR also asks whether wireless providers will be required to make text-to-donate programs available to all candidates and political committees, or whether providers can establish their own criteria for which campaigns will be eligible. Carriers might limit participation—excluding fringe candidates or political committees altogether—if the FEC consents.

“[Wireless carriers] don’t want to be in the position where they have to validate if someone is actually a candidate,” says Erik Nilsson, vice president of the compliance firm CMDI. “That gets difficult down the ballot.”

If the FEC makes carriers offer text-to-donate across the board, it could require developing an underwriting process to validate whether a customer really is a candidate running for office.   

“Similar to its commercial practices, the wireless service providers may seek to establish business criteria to limit participation in the proposal approved by the m-Qube Advisory Opinion,” CTIA’s request reads. “For example, wireless service providers may adopt criteria that would exclude candidates for certain offices, exclude so-called fringe candidates, or potentially refuse to provide service to all political committees.”  

The telecom industry, says Nilsson, is much like a bank—risk averse. While aggregators see an untapped market following the FEC’s initial decision, carriers see an unproven one.

Revolution Messaging’s Scott Goodstein says that while the reporting concerns expressed by the wireless carriers are legitimate, he doesn’t think they should be in the business of deciding how expansive text-to-donate should be and says he would be “shocked” if the FEC actually allowed wireless carriers to dictate eligibility.

“This is not a presidential debate that needs a commission to determine who’s eligible to participate,” says Goodstein. “I don’t think the wireless carriers should have the ability to decide which campaigns are viable or not viable.”  

On the FEC’s agenda for discussion Thursday is a draft advisory opinion requested by aggregator M-Qube, political advertising firm Armour Media and the campaign committee of Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). The FEC’s meeting agenda notes it’s “[f]or discussion only” and that no vote will occur on August 2.

Rep. Cooper’s inclusion in that AOR was intended to expedite the FEC’s process. His August 2 primary, which falls within 60 days of the request’s submission, necessitates a response within 20 days—per commission rules. 

Additional reporting by Shane D'Aprile.


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