An unchecked box could result in unintentional donations for two U.S. Senate candidates

By: - June 18, 2021 1:40 pm

Stock photo by Juanmonino/Getty Images

This story was corrected at 9 a.m on Saturday, 6/19/21, to correctly identify WinRed as a fundraising platform and 11 a.m. on Monday, 6/21/21, to correctly identify ActBlue as a fundraising platform.

If campaign donors aren’t careful, they could be committing to future contributions without realizing it.

Republicans Sean Parnell, of Pittsburgh, and Kathy Barnette, of Huntingdon Valley, both candidates vying for retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s, R-Pa., seat, are the latest Pennsylvania politicians to take a page out of former President Donald Trump’s financing playbook — one that automatically signs donors up for monthly donations.

“The U.S. Senate is evenly divided,” a message on Parnell’s donation page reads. “Senate control depends on you … and me.”

Under that message is a pre-checked box that automatically signs donors up for a recurring payment. Unless the donor unchecks it on their own, they could be committing to a monthly donation, which ranges from $5 to $5,800.

WinRed, a conservative fundraising platform, powers the sites. Gerrit Lansing launched the platform in 2019 to compete with ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising platform.

WinRed did not respond to a request for comment on the fundraising tactic.

“Trump knows to save our nation, we must win back the Senate,” a message on Parnell’s page reads. “But we can’t do it [without] you. Commit to a second donation on the 30th to join Sean and Trump back in the fight to take back the Senate, protect our freedoms, and save America.”

If the box under that message isn’t unchecked, the campaign is authorized to take an additional $10 from the donor at the end of the month.

Barnette’s donation page is set up the same way and asks donors to help the campaign reach its quarterly deadline with a pre-checked box that authorizes the campaign to take $10 at the end of the month.

This tactic, though not illegal, has raised ethical questions in recent election cycles. 

Thousands of people complained when the Trump campaign charged them several times for what was meant as a one-time donation, according to the New York Times. Eventually, the campaign and Republican National Committee refunded more than $122 million, the New York Times reported.

Donation pages for Democratic U.S. Senate candidates do not automatically sign up donors for recurring donations. Five other announced GOP candidates do not use the practice, and some criticized their opponents for using the tactic.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising that Sean Parnell and Kathy Barnette are trying to trap donors into giving recurring donations when the motivation is a one-time contribution,” Sean Gale, a Republican U.S. Senate hopeful, told the Capital-Star. “Both Parnell and Barnette have a history of raising money for losing congressional races.”

“Both are political opportunists who use campaigns to selfishly raise their own profiles in the hopes of selling more books and becoming conservative celebrities,” Gale added.

In May, the Federal Election Commission, which oversees federal election spending, unanimously suggested that Congress ban the use of pre-checked boxes. 

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced legislation that would do just that. The legislation, if it became law, would require consent from donors for recurring payments. Political committees and campaigns would also have to tell donors how to cancel their contributions.

Bill McSwain, a former Philadelphia-area federal prosecutor and Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful, was criticized last month for using the pre-checked box tactic, the Capital-Star previously reported.

A spokesperson for Freedom PA, McSwain’s political action committee, told the Capital-Star that it is in “constant communication” with supporters. 

The spokesperson added that “donors understand the urgency of the fight we’re in to ensure we do not continue to have our freedoms trampled on as [Gov.] Tom Wolf has done for the past seven years.”

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.

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