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FEC will allow campaign donations by text

The change gives federal candidates a new way to tap into small donor networks, but questions about how much money it will bring in remain.

Kai Ryssdal: Here's another technology story, this one of the political kind. 2012 has been, as you know, the year of the super PAC. Of millionaires and billionaires giving freely -- really freely -- to support the candidate of their choice.

Enter now: The small contributor. This week, the Federal Election Commission said candidates for federal office can accept donations via text messages. Marketplace's David Gura explains how it might work, and why those who give by text might be giving campaigns something even more valuable than cash.


David Gura: Politicians took notice when Americans used their cell phones to donate after the earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami in Japan. This would work a lot like that. You’d text how much you want to give to a number, you’d confirm that amount, and that charge would show up on your phone bill.

Aaron Smith is a researcher at the Pew Center.

Aaron Smith: You don’t need a bank account. You don’t need a credit card. You don’t need to type in a long string of numbers to do this. It’s a very sort of seamless process.

But a small donation to a political campaign would get even smaller by the time that process is over with -- maybe smaller by half. Wireless carriers would take a cut, and there’d be a middleman to process the payment and to comply with FEC rules.

But telecom analyst Derek Kerton says something else makes up for those fees.

Derek Kerton: You leave that little calling card, which is your cell phone number, every time you donate.

Or as one of the guys who pushed for this, Democratic political consultant Mark Armour, puts it:

Mark Armour: Once someone texts a donation, they opt in.

And the donor winds up on the campaign’s list.

Armour: Both for persuasion or further fundraising.

The campaign could send text messages, and it could make phone calls, asking for more money. But Bert Johnson, a Middlebury College political science professor, says it gives them a way to make another kind of request:

Bert Johnson: Could you please text your friends right now and tell them that this rally is taking place? Or that you need to get out to the polls.

And that ability, to get out the vote, may be the most valuable thing a campaign can ask for.

In Washington, I’m David Gura for Marketplace.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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