HOUSTON -- Four years ago, as candidate Barack Obama prepared to walk onstage to accept his party’s nomination for the presidency, a message flashing on a scoreboard instructed everyone gathered in Mile High Stadium to send text messages telling friends to watch the upcoming address.
Within minutes, tens of thousands of messages from inside the stadium fired across the nation, dramatically demonstrating the political power of texting.
Imagine what might have happened if all of the people who received those messages could have instantly made campaign contributions.
That scenario could now become a reality. The most expensive presidential campaign in history is tapping a new outlet for political contributions: Text messages.
Early last summer, the Federal Election Commission quietly authorized candidates for federal office to collect small campaign contributions via text message. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns quickly jumped aboard the lucrative bandwagon, establishing systems under which cell phone owner can contribute by simply sending text messages.
Now a Houston attorney wants the Texas Ethics Commission to green light text contributions to candidates for state and local offices, clearing the path for smart phone donations to campaigns for everyone from the governor to mayors to school board members.
“Text contributions are going to revolutionize fundraising,” said Jerad Najvar, an attorney specializing in campaign law. “And I think they’re good for everybody, for all sides of this debate.”
Text message fundraising exploded into national attention in January 2010. That is when a campaign to raise relief money for victims of the Haiti earthquake raised more than $30 million via cell phone. Later that year, the FEC rejected a proposal to extend the technology to American politics. But in 2012, both Republican and Democratic appointees to the commission were receptive to the idea and, with the support of both the Obama and Romney campaigns, the FEC authorized text contributions.
“This is a way to empower those small-dollar contributors,” said Najvar, who filed his petition with the state ethics commission on behalf of a Republican client who hopes to market a iPhone app using text contributions.
But the technology raises some interesting questions. For example, if someone makes a text donation over his employer’s phone and the employer simply pays the company cell phone bill, it could be considered an illegal corporate campaign contribution. Then again, people who aren’t supposed to contribute to campaigns, like foreign nationals, may innocently break the law by texting contributions.
Najvar predicts Texas candidates will simply put a verification screen in their text message donation process, asking contributors to certify that their contributions are legal.
“The issue here, of course, is verification on the candidate side,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU political analyst. “He or she has to prove that these are legitimate campaign contributions and has to be able to back it up with some verification.”
And cell phone carriers are skimming a huge portion of donors’ campaign contributions, political operatives say. In some cases, Najvar says, phone companies are keeping anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent of text message donations.
Nonetheless, he’s convinced the questions raised by the new technology will be resolved as more campaign money flows in from text messages.