Rule would allow campaign donations by text message

You can text FOOD to give money to UNICEF or text AFRICA to support the International Rescue Committee. Soon you'll be able to contribute via text to a Maryland politician, state officials say.

Regulations to allow campaign contributions by text message are winding their way though a state approval process, and the system is expected to be in place early next year. The new method of giving is intended to encourage younger, tech-savvy donors to get involved in campaigns.

"It opens up the political discussion to everybody," said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance at the State Board of Elections. "Low-dollar contributors may get involved and vote when they have more of a stake in the elections."

Maryland's General Assembly passed legislation this year authorizing campaign contributions by text message and directing the Board of Elections to implement the change. The board has drafted regulations, which are subject to public comment before they can go into effect.

The new regulations would make Maryland the second state to allow such contributions to candidates for state office. The Federal Election Commission has barred contributions via text to candidates for federal office because of concerns that the method would lead to abuses, such as foreigners using texts to funnel money into U.S. campaigns.

The Maryland rules would limit giving to $10 per text, a restriction imposed by wireless carriers.

Under the draft rules, givers would text a word selected by a political campaign to a five- or six-digit number. The amount would be added to the donor's monthly phone bill. It would be possible for a state political party to set up one number and then have donors text contributions to specific candidates by texting a keyword selected by the candidate.

The donation method became popular in 2010 after the Red Cross set up a text account to raise money for victims of the earthquake in Haiti. Texting the word "Haiti" to 90999 automatically sent $10 to the organization. In just one month, the group raised $32 million.

"It showed us there was a need for people to be able to directly donate through that channel," said Attie Poirier, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. The organization has since used a similar method to raise money for victims of floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters.

The fundraising success led some in Washington to consider using the method for political donations, according to a cellphone trade group.

"In Washington, there are a lot of people who make a living raising money for political campaigns," said Michael Altschul, senior vice president and legal counsel for CTIA, a wireless industry association. "They are the ones who had a light bulb go off that the same mechanism of using texting for donations could be used for campaign finance."

In October, the Federal Election Commission weighed in on whether federal campaigns could accept money via text message. The answer was no.

The commission worried that "the current business practices" used by wireless carriers to process donations would open the door to violations. The commission expressed concern that differences between cellphone billing cycles and campaign finance reporting deadlines could make timely disclosure impossible; corporate donations could sneak by if a donor texted from a work cellphone; and foreign nationals might give money to federal campaigns.

DeMarinis said he was familiar with the federal advisory opinion but confident that state politicians could proceed without running afoul of Maryland rules.

"It becomes just like a credit card," he said. "The campaigns have to ask certain questions. They can give out a warning saying you have to be a U.S. citizen."

Maryland campaigns would still be responsible for ensuring that the names and addresses of all donors are disclosed. "There are no anonymous donations in Maryland," DeMarinis said.

California was the first state to allow political donations via text, making the change in mid-October.

"The idea of encouraging civic engagement is very important to me," said Ann Ravel, chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which oversees campaign giving in the state. "I think that it is one of our missions."

Ravel said her biggest concern is that phone companies wouldn't participate, and she welcomed the news that Maryland is proceeding.

"It would be great to have lots of states across the country allow text messaging [of political donations] so there will be enough interest and pressure," she said.

Altschul could not say whether the carriers would balk, but noted that cellphone companies want to be certain that they would not be mandated to be associated with potentially unpopular causes. Companies such as AT&T and Verizon "spend millions on their brands and reputations," he said.

It remains to be seen whether many Maryland politicians will use texting to raise money. The next election for governor and the General Assembly is in 2014, though potential gubernatorial candidates are already hosting fundraisers.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill to allow text contributions, said he'd consider using the method if his campaign organization is "tech savvy enough" to do it.