After facing heat over automatic recurring donations, Loeffler group makes a change

Transparency for recurring donations became an issue during then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s unsuccessful January runoff campaign and likely resulted in her issuing millions of dollars in refunds to donors. During that time, Loeffler, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue and former President Donald Trump all sent fundraising appeals that included pre-checked boxes for contributions to repeat on a weekly basis. Until recently, Loeffler's new group, Greater Georgia, also included pre-checked boxes for recurring contributions, this time on a monthly basis. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Transparency for recurring donations became an issue during then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s unsuccessful January runoff campaign and likely resulted in her issuing millions of dollars in refunds to donors. During that time, Loeffler, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue and former President Donald Trump all sent fundraising appeals that included pre-checked boxes for contributions to repeat on a weekly basis. Until recently, Loeffler's new group, Greater Georgia, also included pre-checked boxes for recurring contributions, this time on a monthly basis. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler has had to refund millions of dollars in campaign donations, many to people who said they unknowingly signed up to make recurring contributions.

Until recently, Loeffler used the same system of recurring contributions in her latest political venture.

The donate page for her organization Greater Georgia — a voter registration group that also advocates for conservative policies — included options to select the amount of the contribution, plus fields to type in personal information and a credit card number.

There was also a pre-checked box with text highlighted in yellow: “Make this a monthly recurring donation.” Only by manually unchecking the box did the donation convert to a one-time gift.

Screenshot taken May 12 of the donation page on the website of former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler's organization Greater Georgia.
Caption
Screenshot taken May 12 of the donation page on the website of former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler's organization Greater Georgia.

Loeffler’s site was changed in recent days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began asking questions about her policy of automatically opting donors into monthly gifts. The monthly recurring donation box is no longer checked on the Greater Georgia site.

A spokesperson for the organization did not immediately respond to the AJC’s question about the change.

Now that Loeffler’s website has been updated, she is no longer the outlier in how she fundraises when compared with political players from both parties. None of the donation pages linked from websites for each current member of Georgia’s congressional delegation automatically signs up donors for recurring contributions. Nearly every lawmaker has it as an option, but donors have to select it instead of being opted in.

A spokesperson for Greater Georgia, which is registered as a nonprofit organization and not a political committee, sent a general statement to the AJC last week when the recurring donation box was still pre-checked. The statement said people are aware of what they sign up for.

“Any recurring donation requires active confirmation by a donor, and any refund requests are processed in a timely manner,” the statement said.

The practice of automatically recurring donations has drawn criticism from campaign finance and ethics watchdogs, especially after an April report in The New York Times drew widespread attention to the practice and the massive refunds that resulted during last year’s election cycle.

Timothy Kuhner, a former law professor at Georgia State University who specializes in political finance and now teaches at the University of Auckland, said public officials should avoid requiring contributors to opt out of repeat donations, describing the practice as “tricky and strategic in ways unbefitting our political representatives.”

“Of course, those who use these boxes will argue that donors should notice and make their choice in an informed fashion, but we all know that’s not how people operate in the real world,” Kuhner said. “We’re rushed, we aren’t as familiar with the website design as the designers are, and we get caught up in a system that I would call semi-fraudulent or intentionally deceptive.”

Kuhner said recurring donations are a byproduct of the “arms race” of fundraising, where candidates look to squeeze out every dollar they can in hopes of outspending their competition.

Transparency for recurring donations became an issue during Loeffler’s unsuccessful January runoff campaign and likely resulted in her issuing millions of dollars in refunds to donors. Her campaign made more than 1,000 refunds to individual donors; about 82% had made more than one contribution to her during the runoffs.

Loeffler, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue and former President Donald Trump all sent fundraising appeals during that time that included pre-checked boxes for contributions to repeat on a weekly basis. Most of these recurring donations came from supporters who sent money through WinRed, the Republican Party’s main fundraising platform.

ActBlue, the preferred donations platform for Democrats, generally defaults to making donations one-time only. Contributors can select an option to make monthly recurring donations instead. Most Democrats, the state party and Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight use ActBlue to raise money; all their websites defaulted to one-time donations.

The same is true for all eight GOP members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, who mostly use WinRed. The default is one-time payments with an option to make recurring monthly contributions.

Vincent Russo, an attorney who has represented the state in voting rights cases and serves as the Republican Party of Georgia’s general counsel, also has campaign management experience. He said pre-checked boxes for recurring donations have never been something he encouraged or came across very often over the years.

He tells donors to read the fine print on solicitation emails or websites to make sure they understand what they are signing up for. He encourages candidates to be transparent.

“I tell them to use clear, concise and accurate language in their fundraising solicitations,” Russo said.

Kristin Oblander, a longtime Democratic fundraiser, said she was not familiar with the practice of requiring donors to opt out of repeat contributions.

“I’ve had my fundraising firm 22 years,” she said, “and we never turned on automatic enrollment for recurring (donations).”

Oblander said people who give relatively small donations, even just $25, are often more budget-conscious than donors with deep pockets who can give $1,000. Automatically enrolling small donors to make multiple contributions can therefore have a much bigger impact, she said.

The New York Times reported that from late November through December, Loeffler’s and Perdue’s campaigns issued a collective $4.8 million in refunds. That amount was “more than triple the amount refunded by their Democratic rivals via ActBlue, even though the Democrats had raised far more money online,” according to the paper.

“The refunds have stretched into 2021 and have been a source of frustration for the Loeffler campaign, according to a person familiar with the matter,” the Times said.

Loeffler’s most recent campaign finance report, which covers late January through the end of March, showed an additional $1.1 million in refunds. Perdue refunded just $27,099 during that time.

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who defeated Perdue and Loeffler, respectively, have also doled out a large number of refunds during the most recent reporting period. Their totals, $814,660 for Ossoff and $455,151 for Warnock, still lag behind Loeffler.

Both Warnock’s and Ossoff’s teams said these refunds were largely due to people who donated more than the federal limits for individuals, which was generally $2,800. Neither candidate used pre-checked boxes during campaign season to automatically sign up donors for recurring payments, their representatives said.

It is impossible to know from the reports alone what percentage of refunds from any candidates’ accounts were tied to recurring donations or were for other reasons.

The national Republican and Democratic parties still use pre-checked boxes to steer donors to give monthly. The parties say they enforce transparency by following up in emails confirming the recurring contributions and giving donors a chance to change their minds.

Most Georgia lawmakers who are running for reelection, as well as the state political parties, have an opt-in policy for recurring donations.

The Federal Election Commission recently recommended to Congress that a law be passed that disallows pre-checked boxes for recurring donations and to require campaigns to immediately cancel recurring transactions when a request is received.

“Commission staff are regularly contacted by individuals who have discovered recurring contributions to political committees have been charged to their credit card accounts or deducted from their checking accounts,” the FEC wrote in its recommendation list for Congress. “In many cases, the contributors do not recall authorizing recurring contributions.”

Data specialist John Perry contributed to this article.

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