In a move that will likely open text-message-based campaign contributions to AT&T customers, the Federal Election Commission has issued an advisory opinion allowing for wireless carriers to process political donations at a low rate.
The decision is politically significant because AT&T is the only nationally unionized wireless carrier, and it offers discounts to union members. While both presidential campaigns are accepting text-message donations via custom shortcodes, the donation channel has not received that much publicity. This could change, at least where Democratic candidates are concerned: On Wednesday, the left-leaning campaign-technology firm NGP VAN announced a partnership with Revolution Messaging to process text-message-based contributions for campaigns.
The FEC first allowed text-message donations to be made via wireless carrier billing in June. Initially they were intended to be anonymous and capped at $50 per month per phone number and $200 per election cycle. Since then, the FEC has allowed wireless customers to donate the maximum allowable by law under existing rules of compliance.
When the FEC first took a crack at establishing rules for text-message-based donations, it followed the lead of the wireless trade association CTIA, which indicated that carriers who processed donations in the same way that charitable donations are handled could be on the hook for making "in-kind contributions" to political candidates, parties, or committees. This guidance suggested carriers treat political donations much like the sale of ring tones, from which carriers get a 40 percent cut or more.
AT&T broke ranks with CTIA and sought to process text-message-based political donations at low cost, arguing in its FEC filing that its customers "reasonably will expect that most of their contribution is going to the political candidate or committee of their choice" and "do not want a significant portion of their [contributions] siphoned off to the aggregators and wireless [service] providers."
The FEC will take up this opinion in their Sept. 20 meeting. If it is approved, AT&T will likely join Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular in processing text-message-based political donations.