Donations by texting may get FEC approval as soon as Friday

Craig Engle, council with Arent Fox, said committees have not only the responsibility but also the incentive to keep track of the incoming donations.

There’s an incentive to “take mobile numbers, and hopefully continue to communicate with them repeatedly throughout the campaign to gather donations” and volunteering from donors, he said.

Text donations would be capped at between $10 and $50 per billing cycle and campaigns would enforce that restriction through tracking donations from “a single user’s mobile phone number” to a single “premium short code” assigned to the political committee. The short code would also enable the aggregator and carriers to ensure “the $50 limit is never exceeded for one political recipient.”

Commissioner Steven Walther expressed concern over the use of pre-paid cellphones.

“There is very little chance of identifying the identity of someone who starts buying a bunch of Crickets,” he said, referring to Cricket, a cellphone company that offers prepaid cellphones for as little as $30, with monthly plans as inexpensive as $35.

Brett Kappel, another attorney with Arent Fox, noted that anonymous donations could already occur, for instance, if someone mails a cash donation to a campaign.

“I don't know if they could block [pre-paid phone numbers] entirely, would have to find out from the industry,” he said.

Vice Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub said the benefit of increasing donor participation outweighs the risk of corruption.

“Violations of the law will occur. That's no reason for us not to go forward,” she said. In order to evade contribution limits, she continued, the donor would have to buy at least three separate cellphone lines, which “wouldn't be worthwhile for anyone. There are far easier ways to give.”

Weintraub added: “We're not saying there's not a way to do it illegally. There is just a way to do it legally.”

Overall, she said, it would be “helpful” to the campaign finance system as a “mechanism for expanding the [donor] pool,” pointing out that the archetypal demographic of a campaign donor is a white male with a high income.

While California and Maryland have passed similar laws allowing campaign donations via text messages, with strict recording requirements, Engle pointed out that those have not been tested.

“It’s not clear that those regulations can be complied with,” he said. Although, he said that there would be an ability to block foreign numbers, those who have a record of non-payment and those who text donations too frequently.

This week, ten watchdog groups and campaign finance groups have expressed their support for the request. Fifteen Democratic members of Congress also wrote the commission to support the measure. And when the consulting and aggregation firms first submitted the request for text contributions, both Mitt Romney's and President Obama's campaigns pushed the FEC to approve it.

Allowing text message contributions opens up “the potential for [Obama and Romney] to raise a lot of money,” Weintraub said.

By the end of the meeting, at least three of the six commission members seemed to favor the request, with others teetering on consent. It takes a majority to approve the request.