With the American political system deluged with super-sized donations, a few innovative proposals are trying to harness small donors and, in one case, divert campaign cash to charity.
The Federal Election Commission recently OK'd a proposal to let consumers cash in loyalty program points, like airplane miles or credit card points, for donations to their preferred candidate. The commission is mulling another way to empower small donors – allowing campaign contributions by text message – which has already been approved at the state level in California.
Federal regulators are also considering whether to give the green light to Repledge.com, which seeks to dial back the "arms race" in political contributions. Democratic and Republican donations made through the Repledge system would cancel each other out, and the money would go to charity instead.
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For example, if Repledge.com received donations of, say, $120,000 to Mitt Romney and $100,000 to Barack Obama, then the $100,000 on each side would get redirected to charity and the $20,000 extra in Romney’s column would go to the candidate.
"The money can just be better spent," said Eric Zolt, a UCLA law professor who came up with Repledge. "We think removing the dollars from the campaigns on a bipartisan basis is a really powerful statement. The statement is that our campaign finance system is broken."
Zolt already does this on a personal level. He and his wife are on different ends of the political spectrum: "She’s from Texas, I’ll just say that," he explained. So instead of making dueling campaign contributions, they give that money to charity.
Zolt is also fed up with the omnipresence of political ads. "They completely destroyed for me watching UCLA football, which for the last number of years has been painful enough without watching political advertisements," he said.
The Federal Election Commission is trying to choose between two draft opinions – one that would permit the plan and one that would block it. The question is whether Repledge would violate a ban on corporations facilitating campaign contributions.
Zolt and his Repledge partner, Jonathan DiBenedetto, hope to be up and running in time to suction off a few percentage points of the billions of dollars that are expected to be thrown into the presidential race this year.
"There's just so much money here and there's such an arms race that it really isn’t affecting the outcome of the election," DiBenedetto said.
Campaign finance scholar Jessica Levinson noted that a $100 donation to one campaign might not exactly cancel out $100 to another campaign if one side uses the money more effectively. But she likes the idea.
"If it's legal it could be a win-win, in terms of candidates saying, 'I’m helping to raise money for charity,' and people still being able to voice their support in a way," said Levinson, who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Washington lobbyist David Urban, on the other hand, is pushing an idea to bring more money into politics. His "Points for Politics" system would allow loyalty program points to be redeemed for political contributions. The election commission approved it in late April, and now he needs companies with loyalty programs to sign on.
"It’s an opportunity for a huge, huge segment of Americans who don’t really participate in the political process, in the fundraising way," he said.
Lots of people, Urban said, have $25 in loyalty points that often just sit there. Rather than redeem points for silly contraptions like a "cordless blender for the beach" or an "electric dog polisher," he said, they could put the money toward a candidate and become engaged in a new way.
As a prominent lobbyist and previous chief of staff to former Republican-Senator-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, Urban knows that "money drives politics," as he put it. But though Urban and his lawyer, Cleta Mitchell, have strong Republican credentials, he insists it's not a partisan scheme. It's a business, after all: Urban's website would take a 10 percent fee from each donation.
"I’ll take all comers – independent, Green Party, anyone who wants to donate through the website," he said. "It’s completely agnostic. That’s the beautiful part of it."
Text message donations can be another way to facilitate small donations, supporters say. Several advocacy groups often critical of the campaign finance system, such as Public Citizen and Campaign Legal Center, recently urged [PDF] the Federal Election Commission to approve the proposal.
“As we simultaneously work to reduce the role of unchecked Super PACs and corporate special interest spending, we must also support small donors, who continue to have a diminished role in the political process,” they wrote in a joint letter.
Levinson of Loyola Law School, though, questions whether a new influx of small donors is enough to turn the tide.
"I’m excited by these proposals, but with all the super PAC spending, how much does it really matter?" she said.