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AO 2013-16: Nonprofit May Use Donor Data to Facilitate Contribution Refunds

PoliticalRefund.org (“PoliticalRefund”) may use information from FEC reports to inform certain individual donors of their right to seek refunds of their contributions to federal candidates and may help to facilitate those refunds.  PoliticalRefund may also post aggregate refund statistics on its website and accept paid advertising and sponsorship to offset its costs.   

Background
PoliticalRefund is a non-profit organization whose mission is “to provide political campaign contributors a simple, user-friendly means to request a refund of their contributions.” It plans to focus on contributions made to officeholders “whose dramatically shifting issue positions or scandals” might make contributors want a refund of their contributions. To identify and contact those contributors, PoliticalRefund will use data from reports filed with the Commission and posted on the Commission’s website. It will also use an outside vendor to help gather additional contact information, such as email addresses. According to the request, the vendor will destroy its records of a contributor’s contact information after sending them to PoliticalRefund to prevent any further use, and PoliticalRefund will likewise destroy a contributor’s information once it contacts that individual. It will not retain, sell or otherwise use that information.

Once PoliticalRefund has contact information for individuals who have contributed to a particular campaign, it will send them a letter, postcard or email to inform them of their right to request a refund. PoliticalRefund will help contributors request a refund (if they choose to do so) by providing a refund request form to send to the campaign and--with contributor permission--by following up with the campaign about the contributor’s request. Contributors will only be contacted once for each candidate they contribute to in a given election cycle (unless they ask to be contacted more frequently) and they will not be asked to make donations to help fund PoliticalRefund’s activities. PoliticalRefund plans to accept advertising and sponsorship to cover its costs, but it will not accept advertising or sponsorship from candidates, political committees or any group that is primarily involved in political activities.

PoliticalRefund will display on its website the total number of individuals who have requested a refund as well as the total dollar amount requested from specific committees and from all committees combined.

Analysis
Under the Federal Election Campaign Act (“the Act”) and Commission regulations, individual contributor information disclosed on FEC reports cannot be used for solicitations or other commercial activity. 2 U.S.C. §438(a)(4); 11 CFR 104.15(a).

In previous advisory opinions the Commission has determined the solicitation and commercial purpose prohibition does not necessarily prevent the use of such information for other purposes, even political ones, that are not commercial and do not involve a solicitation. See Advisory Opinions (AOs) 2009-19 (Club for Growth), 1984-02 (Gramm), and 1981-05 (Findley). 

The Commission determined that PoliticalRefund’s proposed use of individual contributor information would not violate the Act, because it would not be used for commercial purposes or to solicit contributions or donations. The safeguards for donor information and limited contact with individual contributors are consistent with the limits set out in AO 2009-19 (Club for Growth). Likewise, the proposed display of total refund requests and total dollar amounts requested (both from specific committees and from all committees) on PoliticalRefund’s website would not include any identifiable contributor information.

Finally, the Commission concluded that PoliticalRefund could sell advertising and sponsorship opportunities to defray its costs. Because PoliticalRefund’s activities are consistent with the Act and it is not subject to the Act’s financing restrictions, its sources of income are not governed by the Act.

Date Issued: November 21, 2013; Length: 9 pages.

(Posted 11/26/2013; By Travis Drake)

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