News & Politics

Lawmakers advance legislation banning pre-checked campaign contribution boxes

The bill would require candidates and committees to get clear consent for recurring contributions.

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti speaks at a press conference in Philadelphia in May 2022.

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti speaks at a press conference in Philadelphia in May 2022. Commonwealth Media Services

The Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee advanced legislation Tuesday that would prohibit political candidates from using pre-checked boxes on campaign sites to sign up contributors for recurring donations. 

The practice, which has been used by candidates running for state and federal office in Pennsylvania, is legal, but it can cause people to unknowingly sign up to make recurring political donations, critics say. 

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, who is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 383, said the lack of a ban on pre-checked boxes creates an opportunity for “deceptive and unethical” fundraising practices.

In her statement, which was read to the committee by state Sen. Anthony H. Williams – who is filling in for Cappelletti as the Democratic chair of the committee while Cappelletti is on maternity leave – Cappelletti said the legislation is warranted, suggesting that the pre-checked boxes can lead to unwanted financial consequences for people under the impression that they were making a one-time contribution.

“We need policies to protect them from being duped into contributing more to campaigns and they have intended,” Cappelletti said. 

During last year’s midterm elections, Republican U.S. Senate candidates Mehmet Oz, Kathy Barnette and Sean Parnell all used the tactic, as did GOP gubernatorial candidates Dave White and Bill McSwain, according to reporting from the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.  

Former President Donald Trump has also used the fundraising tactic, which has resulted in Trump and other GOP accounts returning $12.8 million to donors in the first six months of 2021, according to The New York Times. But it’s not just Republicans who have used the tactic: ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising platform, has used the pre-checked boxes in the past, as has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to Vox

Last year, the Federal Election Commission issued a slate of recommendations to Congress, including that Congress amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to “require those soliciting recurring contributions to receive the affirmative consent of the contributors.”

The FEC memo notes that commission staffers are regularly contacted by people who have had recurring contributions charged to their credit card or deducted from their bank account. The FEC added: “In many cases, the contributors do not recall authorizing recurring contributions.”

“The Commission’s experience strongly suggests that many contributors are unaware of the ‘pre-checked’ boxes and are surprised by the already completed transactions appearing on account statements,” the memo continues.

Democrats in Congress have introduced similar legislation acting on the FEC’s request. 

Republican state Sen. Cris Dush thanked Cappelletti for introducing the legislation. “I’m very much in support of this and appreciate the bill and the amendment,” Dush said.

In a statement after the vote, Cappelletti acknowledged the bill’s bipartisan support and said she hopes it continues to move through the legislative process. 

“On both sides of the aisle – we agree this practice needs to end,” Cappelletti said. “I hope that this bill continues to move forward, and we can commit to passing more policies that ensure transparency and trust in our campaign finance process.”

The bill was reported out of committee unanimously and awaits a final vote from the full Senate.