“Accountability journalism” strives to hold individuals – usually the powerful – accountable for activities that, while legal, may conflict with local needs and values. The impact of good, consistent accountability journalism comes from the shame and threat of exposure that causes those in power to think twice.
An example earlier this year – though imperfectly executed – involved a Sacramento Bee report on a county supervisor who unsuccessfully encouraged a Canada-style trucker convoy to come to the California capital. Elected officials are completely in their rights to encourage any kind of non-violent protest, but this county supervisor earned all the shame and criticism that rained upon her for ignoring the potential damage this could inflict on local businesses and commuters.
Such accountability journalism has become less and less common. Among the causes: shrinking newsrooms, bottomline revenue considerations, and less interest in holding the powerful to account. But SactoPolico.com believes deeply in accountability journalism, especially when it has a demonstrated impact.
Such has been the case with our report last year on four California GOP Congressional incumbents who employed a widely discredited online fundraising technique called the “prechecked recurring donation box.” Starting last month, we followed up on this story and found all four ceased using the technique, though at curiously different times as will be described. Plus, this reporting led at least one donor to recover $1,000 in undesired auto charges.
This widely criticized fundraising tactic involves changing the default setting on an online donation page to “pre-check” a box authorizing monthly or weekly charges to the donor’s payment account. If left empty, these boxes are called “opt-in” boxes, but by pre-checking the box, all donors are presumed to desire making a recurring donation, unless they uncheck the box and opt out.
If the box is overlooked or the accompanying text confusing, then they must discover the charges on their bills and contact the campaign for a refund and to end the auto-charges. And donors who don’t carefully review their statements may never discover the auto-charges, especially if made in smaller recurring increments like $10 and $25.
The New York Times first widely exposed this tactic last year as used by the Donald Trump presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and their shared accounts. It reported that through June 2021, those entities had refunded an astonishing $135 million. This so disturbed FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub she disparaged the tactic as “almost like theft.”
The Washington Post reported the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) even used this text last year in its prechecked box: “If you UNCHECK this box, we will have to tell Trump you’re a DEFECTOR.”
In response U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced a bill that would ban the tactic. In California, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) similarly criticized the tactic and voted unanimously to support AB 775 to ban the tactic in state and local races. Neither legislation ultimately passed.
Immediately after SactoPolitico’s reporting last August, the campaigns of two California members of Congress changed their default settings. They were U.S. Reps. Young Kim (R-Orange County) and David Valadao (R-Fresno). Neither campaign would provide comment then or now.
In the case of Rep. Kim, our August article featured a donor found by Sacto Politico to be completely unaware he had been charged $25 on a weekly basis for months. He said he planned to contact the Kim campaign to get it remedied. Six days after our story ran, FEC disclosures show he was refunded 42 separate donations of $25 each, or $1,050 total. Further review of Kim’s disclosures found dozens of other donors who had been returned multiple recurring amounts following SactoPolitico’s reporting. These totaled into the five figures, but these would only represent donors who discovered the recurring charges themselves.
Thanks to SactoPolitico.com, one donor to California Rep. Young Kim was refunded more than $1,000.
The other two California GOP incumbents found last year to use the technique were U.S. Reps. Ken Calvert of Riverside County and Michelle Steel also of Orange County. As of the beginning of April, SactoPolitico found both campaigns still featured a prechecked recurring donation box, but after SactoPolitico began contacting some of their donors, both campaigns unchecked the the opt-in boxes. Neither campaign has provided comment.
As part of this follow-up reporting, SactoPolitico also reviewed about 900 different candidate campaign sites. This included all U.S. House and Senate incumbents running for re-election this cycle and about 500 California candidates for state and federal offices. In California, only three candidates were found to still feature prechecked boxes. In addition to Steel and Calvert, Democratic House member Sara Jacobs of San Diego was also found to feature a prechecked recurring donation box.
When reached, the Jacobs campaign said the prechecked box was an accident and removed the box immediately from their donation page.
Said Morgan Hill, a campaign spokesperson, “To our knowledge, our campaign was not using the pre-check feature. As soon as we were made aware that the feature was turned on, we turned it off. We have not had any donor refund requests in the period the feature was unintentionally turned on. We will continue to campaign with honesty and transparency with our supporters.”
To the Jacobs campaign’s credit, they were the only campaign to respond to questions and acknowledge the problem. A review of Jacobs’ FEC disclosures appeared to confirm that no recurring donors have been refunded. This doesn’t mean there couldn’t be Jacobs donors unaware they are being billed recurring donations. However, one recurring Jacobs donor reached by SactoPolitico said that was unlikely. She asked to be identified only as “Kimberly of San Diego” to avoid being inundated by fundraising solicitations and has given $100 a month since February last year.
“I set up my donations through ActBlue, and the wording explaining to make it a recurring donation was very prominent. They also notify you twice that you are giving monthly before you finalize the donation. Then they alert you by email every time future [automatic] donations are made,” Kimberly said.
Among other House and Senate members on this year’s primary ballots, SactoPolitico last month found 22 more House members and two Senators employed the technique as of early April. Two were Democrats and 20 Republican. The Republican Party’s three main national fundraising arms also featured a pre-checked box: the RNC, NRCC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. (The Democratic Party equivalents of these did not feature the prechecked box.)
SactoPolitico reached out and contacted a few recurring donors to the RNC. None responded, but not long after this, the three national Republican organizations and all but three Congressional Republicans changed their default settings to uncheck the box. This suggests a partywide alert may have been issued due to this or other media inquiries.
Whether use of the pre-check feature was on purpose or accidental, journalistic exposure of this practice had the intended effect of informing the public and convincing most campaigns to turn the feature off. This is reducing the chances that more unassuming donors make undesired recurring donations. It also helped at least one donor recover more than $1,000.
That’s the power of good accountability journalism.