Could virtual currency be the next form of campaign clout?
Who needs campaign cash? If one group gets its way, elections of the future might soon be funded by bitcoin.
The Federal Election Commission will review a request Wednesday to allow political campaigns to accept bitcoin donations in the 2014 midterm elections.
The consideration arrives amid rising debate on how to regulate the popular—and polarizing—digital currency, and it could present new questions regarding donation limits and donor anonymity in federal elections.
It could also add fuel to to a raging debate between bitcoin devotees—who view their decentralized, unregulated currency as a legitimate new form of transaction—and those who see it as a shady way to circumvent monetary standards.
For now, the bitcoin-for-campaigns proposal is modest. Its backer, Make Your Laws, is hoping to gain approval for its own specific activity rather than establishing blanket requirements for all bitcoin activity on the political spectrum. Among its proposals:
Contributions would be limited to $100;
Contributors must provide their name, address, occupation, and employers (bitcoin transactions independent of this proposal offer anonymity);
Donors must confirm that the bitcoin they're donating is their own;
Make Your Laws will accept donations by cashing out in U.S. dollars, based on bitcoin's monetary value at the time.
If the plan gains approval, said Sai, the group's mononymous leader, other campaign entities will likely follow the guidelines it set forth. Over time, though, as others push the limits, bitcoin allowance could open the floodgates to a host of campaign finance conundrums.
Because bitcoin is treated as property rather than currency, donors could be confused about whether the FEC's donation limits apply. On top of that, its ever-fluctuating value could lead someone to donate a higher or lower dollar amount than they actually intended—including a possible limit violation if the dollar value goes up soon after a donation.
Campaign transparency issues could also be at play, as backers of the anonymity-based currency meet the campaign world, where donor disclosures are often required.
Make Your Laws is a political action committee, which, among other things, seeks to end America's republican form of government in favor of a proxy-based "liquid democracy."
"This was just responding to requests from potential contributors about whether they could contribute with bitcoin, same as any other payment method," Sai said.
Wednesday's review comes just months after the agency deadlocked 3-3 on a similar proposal brought by the Conservative Action Fund. No new guidelines were issued then, when all three of the FEC's Democrats voted down the idea. But Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, among the Democratic cohort, noted at the time, "We have not seen the last of bitcoin at the FEC."
What's different this time around? Make Your Laws believes it has more clearly spelled out how it would track who is making bitcoin contributions, and it has also presented the FEC with two options. The first would approve the use of bitcoin as in-kind donations to federal campaigns, akin to stocks or bonds, which could then be used directly to pay for expenditures. The second would allow bitcoin donations but require them to be converted into dollars within 10 days, set a $100 cap on each donor per cycle, and not allow direct expenditure payments.
Sai said he doesn't expect a final vote Wednesday but is hopeful that the FEC will look at proposed revisions to previous drafts. The commission has asked for an extension until May 5, which Make Your Laws is prepared to grant. "It deserves to be well thought through," said Sai. Will it eventually be approved? "After some further discussion, yes," he predicted.
If the FEC allows bitcoin, Sai said, it could lend stability to the oft-volatile currency as it sees more use for transactions rather than speculation.
Bitcoin is the most popular brand of a growing number of decentralized digital currencies that can be exchanged for traditional dollars or spent at a growing number of online and brick-and-mortar vendors.
Its supporters say bitcoin and its cousins are a fast, innovative way to pay for goods and services while avoiding fees typically associated with online transactions. Skeptics see it as an easy and anonymous way to engage in money laundering or drug trafficking.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress that virtual currencies could "conceal illegal activity."
Already some politicians have said they would allow bitcoin donations to their campaigns, including Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas, who ran an ill-fated Senate campaign, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor. No federal law currently bars the use of virtual currencies in elections.
Stockman also announced earlier this month plans to introduce legislation that would require the IRS to treat bitcoin as currency rather than property for tax purposes, which would reverse a recent ruling from the agency.