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Why CA bill to protect donors from online scam failed

A major challenge for achieving effective governance involves shrinking newsrooms. As far less about government gets covered, citizens are far less informed about good and bad legislation alike. This applies especially at the local level, but also with a wide array of state legislative matters.

Take California Assembly Bill 775 that was pursued this past legislative session. It was essentially a two-sentence bill designed to ban the widely criticized practice of political campaigns prechecking recurring donation boxes on online fundraising forms. The bill applied to non-federal campaigns and read:

This bill would require a candidate or committee to obtain affirmative consent from a person making a recurring contribution at the time of the initial contribution. This bill would also require a candidate or committee that accepts a recurring contribution to provide a receipt for each contribution, to provide information necessary to cancel the recurring contribution, and to immediately cancel a recurring contribution upon request.

It was introduced with little fanfare in February by Asms. Marc Berman and Lorena Gonzalez, but would protect many campaign donors – especially elderly givers – who either do not notice the pre-checked box or are confused by often unclear explanatory text on the forms and wrack up thousands of dollars in unexpected charges. Plus the requirement to provide a receipt for every future debit would provide an additional reminder to unwitting donors.

The need for this reform became clear earlier this year when the New York Times exposed the “prechecked box” tactic nationally. From the 2020 election cycle through June 2021, the Times reported the campaign of former President Donald Trump, the Republican National Committee and their shared accounts had refunded $135 million to donors who discovered their one-time contributions were appearing every month on their credit card bills, and those were only refunds to donors who had discovered their unwitting recurring donations.

FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub thought the tactic so deceptive she called it “almost like theft.”

The Sacto Politico also covered the issue by revealing in August four California members of Congress continued to employ prechecked boxes long after the national publicity. The piece included interviews with donors unaware of the full nature of how they were scammed. (As of publication, the four House members – Reps. Ken Calvert, Young Kim, Michelle Steel and David Valadao – all still feature prechecked boxes on their donation pages.)

The article also mentioned AB 775, which at that time seemed on course for full passage and forwarding to the governor for signature. Without a single “nay” vote, it had breezed through two Assembly committees, an Assembly floor vote, and one Senate committee. But then quietly last month, the bill was pulled.

The only media coverage of the bill appears to have been in this publication and a supportive OpEd in the Sacramento Bee authored by California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) Chair Richard Miadich and Vice Chair Catharine Baker. They noted the FPPC voted unanimously to support AB 775 and to sponsor the legislation.

A spokesperson with Asm. Berman’s office said they pulled the bill because they “weren’t able to meet the amendment deadline.” However, they wouldn’t specify what amendments were requested.

This delay means banning the widely criticized tactic will not take place until after the 2022 midterm elections at earliest. This leaves many unwitting donors and senior citizens to discover the trick on their own. But a natural question is would greater public attention to AB 775 have created the necessary urgency needed to pass it?

Sean McMorris with California Common Cause said normally his organization would have supported AB 775, but they were in between policy advocates in Sacramento. Thus they were not as active on AB 775 as they might normally have been, which could have generated extra attention for the bill.

“If it is a bill or piece of legislation that is either on the radar of news publications or has a robust information campaign, I think some money-in-politics bills can gain good traction with the public,” McMorris said.

He said a challenge with some campaign finance stories is their complexity. When multiple interests are involved, both sides put out different information that can make the issue seem pretty convoluted for the lay person.

“However, prechecked donation boxes are something pretty easy for average people to wrap their heads around. People get it. It was also kind of a big deal that made the national press earlier this year,” he said.

Asm. Berman’s office said they plan to submit the bill again next year. If this happens, the FPPC said they are likely to support it again. However, passage will need to occur without the momentum created by this year’s earlier national news coverage.

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