Capital New York City Campaign Finance Officials on the Future of Online-Donation Tools by Miranda Neubauer

Capital New York
Capital New York
City Campaign Finance Officials on the Future of Online-Donation Tools
Miranda Neubauer
09/23/2014

The New York City Campaign Finance Board plans to release an updated online campaign donation platform in mid-2015, board members testified before the City Council's government operations committee hearing Monday.

The new tool will make it easier for candidates to receive credit card donations and will also allow them to place donation widgets on their websites to accept donations.

Committee members seemed to take particularly intense interest in the idea of credit card donations.

Councilman Mark Levine wanted to know how close the Campaign Finance Board was to making it possible to accept donations with a credit card swipe using the mobile payment application Square.

The new functions will be an update to the NYC Votes mobile app that the board first released in July 2013, which already allows for online donations as a pilot program.Councilman David Greenfield said the projected mid-2015 launch date was "a little bit late," given that many council members are already beginning to raise funds for 2017 races.

Overall, the proportion of donations via credit card has doubled every election cycle over the past years since 2001, Eric Friedman, the board's assistant executive director for public affairs, said in a follow-up interview, from about eight percent of campaigns participating in the matching program in 2005 to about 40 percent in 2013.

Only a handful of campaigns used the board's tool to raise money during its pilot in 2013, but Friedman noted that the tool was launched at a time when many campaigns had already finished raising money.

Overall, in 2013, according to the board's report on the 2013 election, 29 candidates raised at least half of their total contributions by credit card, while only two did so in 2009.

The new version of the tool will directly connect NYC Votes to the board's financial reporting platform C-SMART, meaning campaigns will no longer have to do double data entry when using the tool.

"It literally puts all the information into C-SMART for purposes of disclosure," Friedman explained.

One difficulty with processing credit card donations currently is that the use of other card processors makes it difficult for the board to verify that contributors live in New York City for their donations to be matched using the public matching program, Friedman said.

"One of the challenges that we have had on the regulatory side is explaining to campaigns what they need from their credit card processor ... before we match your contribution," he said.

The tool will prompt contributors to provide an explanation if there is an issue with their address in order to have it matched, and will offer prompts to ensure that contributors are following board-set limits, preventing the need for the board to follow up with campaigns who then have to follow up with contributors, Friedman said.

Executive director Amy Loprest also said in her testimony that after launching a web-based C-SMART platform in 2013, the board would soon be adding online submission of backup documentation.

Campaign feedback from the pilot phase also informed the plans for a desktop NYC Votes donation widget that candidates can easily add to their websites.

"Obviously you hear a lot about everything being pushed towards mobile for a lot of campaigns, but smaller campaigns, they're not necessarily there yet, a lot of people aren't necessarily there yet," Friedman said. "It's certainly easier for campaigns to direct people to their website than to our tool."

The board will continue to have conversations about making it easier to accept donations for city races using platforms such as ActBlue and NGP VAN, but "what we are building has all of our compliance requirements built in," Friedman said. "While some of the incumbents have already started fund-raising, if we get it up by the summer of 2015, there are a lot of people that have yet to start fund-raising, and we are going to reach a lot of those people," Friedman said.

The first version of the NYC Votes platform was a pro bono effort by the firms Pivotal Labs and Method. According to Friedman, the board is now working with the design firm The Mechanism on the improvements.

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein, a Democratic political campaign strategist, said in an interview that he had not used the board's app, but suggested that its efforts did not always align with the interests of campaigns and their flexibility needs. He noted that the app does not directly integrate with commonly used campaign platforms such as Nationbuilder and NGP VAN, and said that historically, credit card processing had been difficult to use because of a rule requiring campaigns to use unique merchant accounts rather than allowing them to open their own accounts with services such as Stripe, Square or PayPal, an issue he prompted Councilman Mark Levine to ask about during the hearing, via Twitter.

According to the NYC Votes rules and Friedman, the new version of the NYC Votes app will continue to use Stripe, and in that case a separate merchant account is not required.

"The Stripe account acts like the merchant account," Friedman wrote in a follow-up email. "The campaign does need its own Stripe account—Stripe keeps the financial information and connects directly to the campaign’s bank account ... while the NYC Votes system retains only the data campaigns need for disclosure/documentation purposes. It is much simpler, however; the app guides campaigns through the Stripe sign-up process when they sign up for NYC Votes."

Even though the board only has responsibility for contributions in city races, it is also working on updating the NYC Votes application for this November with information on state and federal races as part of its voter engagement mission, drawing on candidate information provided through Google and the Voting Information Project.

With an eye toward 2017 and the Council's new, recently passed disclosure laws, Friedman said, the board would look into ways of improving its online disclosure interface and presentation to "maximize what this new law does."

He suggested that the board would look to groups such as the Sunlight Foundation for "interesting ways of slicing and dicing stuff" and doing more visualizations, with the aim of helping voters with a mailer in their hand access information about where it comes from.

Committee chair Ben Kallos emphasized that the use of text messaging and feature phones could be especially important to lower-income communities.

Art Chang, board member and chairman of the Voting Assistance Advisory Committee, urged the Council to take a look at how the phone companies were pricing such donation texts.

One of the legislative proposals in the board's recent report on the 2013 elections is to make it possible to opt out of receipt of the mailed voter guide, to save printing and mailing costs.

Chang, founder of the technology investment company Tipping Point Partners, also urged the Council to help look into ways that the board could collect more email addresses for more efficient outreach to voters.

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