California should end deceitful campaign fundraising tactic


Richard C. Miadich, Catharine Baker in Mercury News

PUBLISHED: August 18, 2022 at 5:00 a.m. | UPDATED: August 18, 2022 at 5:18 a.m.

Politics brings out the passion in many people, passion strong enough that you decide you’ll take your hard-earned money and give to your favorite candidate. You notice their pitch on-line, give your credit card number and contribute.

Imagine your surprise when you later discover the candidate tricked you into contributing more money without your consent by using a pre-checked box or setting on their donation website that automatically signs you up for recurring contributions. The campaign automatically charges your credit card month after month.

On top of that, the campaign makes it difficult and time-consuming for you to stop the recurring contributions. Maybe you’ll eventually succeed at ending the charges after months of effort, but the campaign does not refund the money it automatically collected.

Such behavior is legal under existing state and federal law.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, California’s nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog, wants to outlaw this practice. Assembly Bill 775 would do just that. We fully support this bill and urge the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom to make it law.

We at the FPPC first learned of campaigns’ use of pre-checked contributions following the 2020 election cycle.

Media reports uncovered countless incidents of those who thought they were giving a one-time donation but didn’t notice cleverly hidden pre-checked boxes that obligated them to recurring donations. To their surprise, these unsuspecting contributors saw their credit card being charged monthly, often in amounts far more than intended and, in some cases, than what they could afford. Candidates from both political parties did this.

Media reports also detailed how difficult some campaigns made it for donors to end the automatic charges and how it disproportionately affected seniors, who are less likely to have the technological savvy to navigate the obstacles campaigns set up to end recurring contributions. It became clear to us this practice is not just deceptive. It’s potentially predatory.

AB 775 is designed to stop this practice in California’s state and local elections. Authored by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, with Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, as a co-author, the bill would prohibit the practice.

Under the bill, recurring contributions would only be allowed after a donor affirmatively consents to it and is plainly told how to cancel the recurring contribution in the future. Campaigns would be required to cancel a recurring contribution immediately upon request by the donor. Campaigns that violate this new law would be subject to fines under the Political Reform Act.

California would be one of the first states to address the issue.

The FPPC voted unanimously to support and sponsor AB 775. As an independent, non-partisan commission, we recognize the important goal and the need for the bill to have widespread, bipartisan support. And it does. This is not a partisan issue but one of transparency and fairness.

Other groups who promote transparency and fairness also support AB 775. The League of Women Voters and California Common Cause both support it. We are pleased to see support from a wide variety of stakeholders who understand that this measure looks out for the best interests of Californians while still allowing any campaign to continue fundraising in an appropriate manner.

With the upcoming mid-term elections fast approaching, moving this bill forward now is critical to getting the law in place as the ever-growing prevalence of political fundraising is already underway.

Richard C. Miadich is chairman and Catharine Baker is vice chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.