Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Naming Small Donors Can Be Tricky

With stories emerging (here and here) about donations to Senator Obama's campaign made using fake names and/or addresses, Senator McCain's campaign is challenging the Democratic nominee to make public the details of all his donors. Under federal law, only gifts which total more than $200 from an individual have to be reported publicly. Some of the dubious donations have started to emerge because the particular fake names have now cumulated more than $200, but others almost certainly lurk in the computers of the Obama campaign.

To his credit, Senator McCain posted a database of all donations, including small ones, on his Web site back in July. I looked at the site for the first time today and immediately see some glitches in the data, but he deserves kudos for making the effort. The Republican National Committee, which is in essence fundraising for McCain since he decided to take public financing for the general election, is promising its own small-gift data online very soon.

This kind of voluntary disclosure has some significant drawbacks for the campaigns and for the donors, both in legal and practical terms. While information on donors who give more than $200 is freely available from the Federal Election Commission, a federal law makes it illegal to use data from those reports for commercial purposes or to solicit political contributions. However, when a campaign voluntarily releases lists of donors, that restriction does not apply. So someone could harvest all the donor information from Mr. McCain's Web site and try to make a mailing list out of it. Such an enterprising soul would face the challenge of finding exact addresses for the donors, since the McCain site only gives cities. states and zip codes.

One possible work-around for all of this is for campaigns to just include the under-$200 donations in FEC reports, even though such gifts are not required to be reported. That would probably pick up the solicitation protection while also providing the public disclosure. I have a memory that Nader or Perot may have done this in some earlier presidential campaign, though I could be mistaken.

While we're on the subject, one told-ya-so. Back in February, when most news outlets were still oohing and aahing at the staggering sums Obama and other candidates were raising online, I. did an article for the Sun, "Secret Money Floods Campaigns," which essentially predicted trouble--including illegal foreign donations--in the $118 million in small gifts made up to that point. Eight months later, here we are.

For the record, I'm dubious that the number or sum of illegal or misreported donations will amount to much as a percentage of donations, especially given how much Obama has raised. But given the history of illegal foreign gifts and other shenanigans in American political campaigns, the players could and probably should be more vigilant about this stuff.