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Smartphoning campaign donations

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Something strange is happening: a California state agency is developing an innovative, user-friendly idea that can be implemented easily and quickly.

It's creative and, so far, non-controversial.

And it can become a reality without the governor or Legislature butting in and tripping all over themselves. Their sign-offs aren't necessary.

The Fair Political Practices Commission — California's political watchdog — is moving toward allowing people to text campaign contributions to candidates and causes.

Citizens already can make political donations through websites by punching in a credit card number. That has been around for a while.

Under the new concept, a person could pull out a smartphone and tap out, for example, "JERRY" plus a short numerical code and pledge, say, $10 or $20 to the governor's political kitty. The donor would pay up on his monthly phone bill, and the campaign then would get its money, minus a small processing fee.

And why not? This is done now for charitable causes. But no one is doing it in politics.

New commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel recalls standing in line for a latte at Starbucks early last year and noticing a sign soliciting Red Cross donations for Haiti earthquake relief. She texted $100 through her iPhone.

The Red Cross reported raising $32 million by text messages in the first month after the earthquake.

"Now the Red Cross is my best friend," Ravel quips. "They don't keep writing me to say thank you. They keep writing me to ask for more."

Politicians, of course, would do the same. They habitually return to the well.

But Ravel's goal is to broaden participation in the political process.

"I really believe this will encourage greater participation in elections," asserts the former Obama administration Justice Department official and Santa Clara County counsel. "It will provide an opportunity for people who normally are not involved in the political process to become interested.

"If they see a candidate on television and like the message, they'll have a quick opportunity to donate. They can give as little as $10. They won't have to write a check and mail it off. All they have to do is pick up a cellphone and send a text."

Of course, parents would need to guard against their teenagers suddenly getting smitten by some smooth talker and texting off the family grocery money. Likewise, an employer would have to make sure its workers didn't text a donation using a company phone.

"That's for each employer to deal with," says Michael Altschul, general counsel for the wireless trade association, called CTIA. "It's not a carrier problem. Carriers aren't going to be the policemen for this."

The wireless industry last year tried to make text message donations legal in presidential and congressional contests but was turned down by the Federal Election Commission. Too many federal regulations that wouldn't mesh with the texting proposal, the commission concluded.

Critics complained that the commission's rules were relics of the rotary-dial era.

The federal panel was concerned about misuse of corporate funds, illegal foreign contributions, people exceeding the $50 limit for anonymous donations and timely payments to campaigns.

But Ravel says California's regulations match up fine with the new technology.

She recently scheduled time at a commission meeting for public comments on her idea, and no one showed up. She's going to repeat the offer next month.

Staffers are still writing the proposed regulations. Ravel hopes to have them adopted Oct. 13. They'd be in place for the 2012 state and local elections.

I called some political operatives to see if donating by text message raised any red flags for them.

"It's a terrific idea," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former Republican strategist. "If you can buy a book or a sweater online, you ought to be able to buy a politician."

Of course, anyone already can buy in at a website. But Schnur, who teaches a political science class, says: "for 21-year-olds, going to a website and making a contribution is the equivalent of sending the money by pony express. My students don't send email. They communicate by texting."

Texting a $10 donation would be an entry-level political action, Schnur notes. If someone ever got to the point of giving $1,000, the donor would want to personally put the check in the candidate's hand to assure full credit.

Los Angeles-based political consultant Parke Skelton (no relation) thinks "anything that broadens [a candidate's] base and makes it easier to contribute is a good idea."

He adds: "Anyone who gives $5 to your campaign is going to vote for you."

Richard Temple, a veteran campaign strategist, says "there's a new generation coming up. This is the way they communicate. Campaigns have to change with that."

For politicians, he says, contributing by text message would be "another useful tool. But it still wouldn't replace hand-to-hand fundraising. People aren't going to text $3,000."

And he doubts it would significantly increase political participation.

Voter turnouts have been dropping, he says, "because of technology in reverse. People are bombarded with information nonstop — poorly done advertising that turns people off, politicians attacking each other and not saying anything.

"Add that to a faster-paced world. People don't have time to eat together at the dinner table anymore, let alone pay attention to politics."

Texting political donations might not change any of that. But it would make good sense and put California ahead of the pack nationally.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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