Full Disclosure CFB Discusses Ways to Bring Text Message Contributions into NYC's Campaign Finance Program by NYC Campaign Finance Board

Full Disclosure
Full Disclosure
CFB Discusses Ways to Bring Text Message Contributions into NYC's Campaign Finance Program
NYC Campaign Finance Board

Before the 2017 elections, NYC residents will be able to make small-dollar contributions to political campaigns -- and provide candidates with the benefit of matching funds -- with the click of a few buttons via text message.

On Monday, November 24, the CFB held a public hearing on proposed rules to implement Local Law No.116 of 2013, legislation sponsored by then-Council Member (and current Manhattan Borough President) Gale Brewer. The law permits SMS (“short message service”) contributions in City elections and provides that SMS contributions can be matched with public funds under NYC’s existing campaign finance program. 

Monday’s hearing aimed to elicit public input on how to meet the intent of the law and harness the full possibilities of SMS technology as a fundraising tool for city campaigns.

The hearing featured testimony from Peggy Farber and Lauren George, representatives of local good governance groups Citizens Union and Common Cause NY, in addition to testimony by Bob Bishop of the government relations firm Pitta Bishop Del Giorno & Giblin LLC and political consultant Steven Kramer.

The prospect of minimizing the divide between constituents and elected officials through a medium as simple and ubiquitous as SMS has evoked praise from local stakeholders.

"Once again, the NYCCFB looks to bring the most innovative practices to campaigns and elections in New York City,” wrote NYC Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the Council’s Governmental Operations Committee, via e-mail. “Text message contributions will allow residents to donate on their phones with a quick text, encouraging more grassroots candidates with small donor support to run and succeed,” commented Kallos in a response to the hearing.

The discussion of applying text message contributions to NYC’s matching funds program, however, has spilled over the City’s limits to garner national attention as well. Members of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the State Board of Elections in Maryland, which is a pioneer in merging campaign finance with technology, have all weighed in on the conversation taking place in New York City.

FEC Vice Chair Ann M. Ravel and Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub both submitted written testimony ahead of Monday’s hearing, supporting the CFB’s proposed rules and offering suggestions to inform the rule making process based on their experiences with similar issues on the state and federal levels. 

“Our democracy works best when all Americans, not just the wealthy few, are able to participate meaningfully in all aspects of the electoral system, including campaign finance. Small-dollar matching funds programs offer a way to achieve that goal. Including text message contributions in the program will provide expanded opportunities for small donor participation,” wrote Commissioner Weintraub in a letter to CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest.

Public comments, hearing testimony and video of the hearing can be accessed here.

While the hearing’s speakers agreed on the utility of sanctioning SMS contributions to citywide campaigns, they had different views on how to mitigate some of the challenges that have surfaced in devising the program’s implementation. Those challenges include high fees charged by wireless carriers, the timing of the contributor’s payment via his or her wireless phone bill, the verification of donor’s residency, and how matching contributions with public funds are affected by all three.

As the CFB’s final rules for text message contributions are prepared for release, the importance of the fundraising tool in increasing pathways for electoral engagement and the frequency of small donations to campaigns, remains clear.

“We believe that the technology under consideration here can play a crucial role in helping to empower the voices of more New York City residents,” noted Lauren George of Common Cause NY in her testimony. “More than 30 million Americans have texted a contribution to a charitable cause, and many will likely text a donation to a political candidate once the practice is set up for New York City elections.”