The standard official portrait poses members of Congress like patriots in front of a U.S. flag. But with four House members from California, behind those “trust me” smiles is an apparent willingness to trick even their most loyal supporters out of money by using an online fundraising tactic that members of state and federal election agencies call “unscrupulous” and “almost like theft.”
Based on Sacto Politico’s review of the online donation forms of California’s two senators and 53 House members, the four House members are Michelle Steel and Young Kim of Orange County, Ken Calvert of Corona, and David Valadao of the Central Valley. Each is a Republican and feature a prechecked box on their online donation form. If the donor doesn’t uncheck this box, they will be charged ongoing automatic monthly – and sometimes weekly – donations.
Until contacted by Sacto Politico, Larry Deckerhoff of Spring, Texas, was unaware he had been charged on a weekly basis by Young Kim’s campaign. According to Kim’s FEC filings from January to June, her campaign charged Deckerhoff 27 weekly donations of $25 totaling nearly $700.
“Yeah, that was a scam,” said Deckerhoff, when reached. He added he will be contacting Kim’s campaign for a refund of most of it. Fortunate for Kim, the experience did not diminish his opinion of her. “I remain a big supporter.”
Earlier this year, the New York Times widely exposed this tactic as used by Donald Trump in last year’s presidential campaign. From the 2020 election cycle through June 2021, the Times reported Trump, the Republican National Committee and their shared accounts have so far refunded $135 million. But since refunds are only made to donors who notice and request a refund, there’s no way to know the total amount donors have unwittingly been charged.
The tactic is considered so craven the Federal Election Commission unanimously called on Congress to ban this default setting. FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub separately said, “It’s almost like theft.” In response Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced a bill in May that, if passed, would ban the tactic.
In California, Democrats and Republicans have both employed the tactic. Earlier this year, Politico reported GOP recall candidates Doug Ose and Kaitlyn Jenner both employed prechecked recurring donation boxes. Ose has since changed his donation page default, but Jenner continues to use it. Politico also reported one of the campaign sites of Gov. Gavin Newsom employed a pre-checked box in early May before it being changed a few days later.
In a statement, Richard Miadich, chair of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, said, “The ploy used by some candidates and committees to trick people into contributing more money than they want to – or even can afford - is wrong and needs to stop. People should be able to clearly know and see what they’re signing up for.”
“To prevent people from being taken advantage of by unscrupulous political players,” he added, “we [the Commission] voted unanimously to not only support AB 775 but to be a sponsor as well.”
AB 775 passed the State Assembly in May and awaits approval by the State Senate before forwarding to the governor for signature. (See recent OpEd on bill here by Miadich and a colleague.)
Editor’s note: A follow-up story on AB 775 ran on 9/30/21. See here.
However, given the attention the online fundraising tactic has received, most campaigns have already changed the default on their fundraising sites and no longer feature a checked box. But for campaigns that continue the practice, the wording next to these checked boxes sometimes adds to the deception.
For instance, some read like a survey question and bury the opt-out warning. Take Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. As recently as May, his campaign donation page featured a prechecked recurring donation box. The default has since been changed to an unchecked box, but the message next to it hasn’t been updated. It reads:
“If you’ve given up on House Republicans and our fight against the Socialist Left, uncheck this box. But if you still stand with us, leave this box checked and make your monthly donation to bold Patriots fighting back against Pelosi and the socialist left.”
Similarly, this is the current message on Calvert’s contribution page:
None of the four California House members who continue to use the controversial tactic responded to requests for comment. Of the four, Kim has refunded the most money this year. According to FEC filings, she’s returned $30,000 so far, but it’s not possible to determine how much was refunded due to a prechecked donation box.
When donors discover the charges, it appears campaigns count on good faith by the donor to not hold a grudge. One such donor was Valadao supporter Hubert Hudson, a 95-year-old retired insurance broker living outside Santa Cruz.
He said he donated $250 in January, but later discovered $1,000 in additional unexpected charges on his credit card bills. This was refunded. However, he presumed he must have been the cause of the error, and the campaign did not disabuse him of this.
“The person I was upset with was myself for having overlooked it. I have been around a long time. I pride myself on not making mistakes. I have seen that box before,” Hudson amiably said. “There was another political cause I gave to later on, and I did it correctly.”
“It was buyer beware. I admit that. I have no regrets. I am just a little bit smarter now,” he said. “I will still support the Congressman, but henceforth, I will only send checks direct, rather through WinRed online.”