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Principles of ActBlue

A recent Seattle Times story on Maria Cantwell noted that, 

By far the biggest single source of Cantwell's fundraising last year was ActBlue, a political-action committee that acts as an online conduit for individuals who want to give to Democratic candidates. ActBlue "bundled" $365,000 for Cantwell.

Oh, hey scare quotes. If you check out Cantwell's ActBlue hub, you'll see she's received 7,333 donations through ActBlue totaling $750,000. That works out to about $100 a pop. Those donations were made by folks (real people!) who decided they wanted to support Cantwell's campaign and the money was disclosed to the FEC. So, we've got lots of people choosing to participate in a campaign, and doing so transparently. Terrifying. 

Let's return to those scare quotes. The author of the piece uses them to imply something inappropriate about small-dollar fundraising, as if totaling up grassroots donations were somehow the equivalent of, say, the K Street Project. It's ridiculous. Enabling small dollar donors to participate transparently and consequentially in the fundraising process only enhances democratic accountability. It's the opposite of the shadowy system of billionaire-financed campaigning that's kept the Republican nomination process going for so long. Bundling our "bundling" in with that sort of fundraising reflects a profound ignorance of what ActBlue actually does, and damages the credibility of the piece as a whole. 

It also reflects a real blindness about the role of money in politics. Money that comes from individuals and is disclosed in a way voters and reporters can access is hardly a corrupting influence. It's just another way for (actual) people to express themselves within the political process; the fact that ~$100 individual donations through ActBlue account for the lion's share of Maria Cantwell's fundraising is something to be celebrated, not scorned.

In yesterday's Washington Post, T.W. Farnam apparently thought it would be illuminating to compare grassroots donors to addicts. The article is the other half of a classic D.C. lose-lose attack on the grassroots: if you don't give, you're a feckless mass who can't be trusted to come through for candidates, and if you do give you're rubes at mercy of canny political operatives.

Unconsidered in the article is the apparently outlandish possibility that grassroots donors are making their own decisions about who to support–that they aren't just money pinatas to be beaten by enterprising staffers when cash gets low. Crazy, I know. 

Beyond the condescending frame and patronizing tone, the article still has a huge problem: what's the alternative? Over the past two years we've seen a marked erosion of campaign finance law, always to the benefit of monied interests. If grassroots donors don't step up to provide a counterweight to that ever-increasing concentration of power, the end result will be the total capture of our electoral system by those interests. Voters will just be the people who show up on election day to ratify a choice that was made long before ballots were printed.

And that's the real reason why grassroots giving matters: by engaging in the fundraising process, grassroots donors are taking ownership of their political future. To use a well-worn GOP chestnut, they have "skin in the game." Grassroots donors raised over half a million dollars for Kathy Hochul (D-NY) and helped her pull out an unlikely win in NY-26. That kind of participation fulfills the promise of American democracy, and shouldn't be treated like some kind of hideous affliction brought on by the digital age. 

As a follow-on to my previous post, I'd like to emphasize that groups like American Action Network and Crossroads GPS are not infrastructure in the ActBlue sense. 

These groups are a means for very wealthy individuals–upon whom AAN and GPS depend to survive–to influence our electoral process through large undisclosed donations. Those donations aren't popular among the electorate, and the organizations themselves exist largely as a result of the Citizens United decision and the disarray of the RNC under Chairman Steele. It's a winning combination of dependence, insecurity and loathing: dependent on a small number people, founded in shifting legal ground, and widely loathed by the American people. 

ActBlue is rooted in the least controversial aspect of campaign finance law: the ability of actual (not corporate) persons to give to campaigns. The sort of giving our platform enables is tremendously important to a community of donors over a million strong, and is exactly the sort of credential candidates like to burnish. 

On Tuesday, the Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) released their "Who to Hire" guide to political technology providers, and we were happy to see that ActBlue took 2nd place overall, with a 4.23/5 rating and the third highest number of survey respondents. If you follow the link above, you'll see that when they broke down the responses by category, ActBlue led decisively across the board:

  • Capacity and Reliability of Software: 2nd
  • Usability of Software: 1st
  • Quality of Customer Service: 2nd
  • Fairness of Pricing: 2nd

No other service provider placed as highly in as many categories. In our internal discussions, these are exactly the categories where we strive to be an industry leader and it was humbling to see that our efforts were recognized by survey respondents. I want to highlight the "Usability of Software" category, and not just because we stand atop the podium.

As Nancy Scola has written, one of ActBlue's core goals is to normalize the act of political giving. That's fancy talk for a pretty simple idea: political giving should be a regular part of American life. You go to work, cook dinner, and after dinner head over to the computer and donate $5 to your preferred candidate.

A lot of the anger Americans feel toward their elected leaders is rooted in the idea that Washington serves special interests rather than the American people. And, to the extent that this intuition is correct, it's because those special interests have a lot of campaign cash to dole out. The obvious answer to this problem is to create an alternate source of funding for our elected officials, so that standing up to special interests isn't such an electorally damaging proposition.

The central idea behind ActBlue is that the American people have the potential to be that alternate source, and at this point we've clearly demonstrated proof of concept. ActBlue has sent $127.3M to thousands of Democratic candidates and committees, with an average donation size of around $100. And ActBlue users send their money to everything from presidential campaigns to mayoral races. As a final note, we practice what we preach: we fund our operations through tips and direct donations from our users.

However, if political giving is going to become a normal part of American life, it has to fulfill two criteria:

  1. It must be easy.
  2. It must be transparent.

I'm going to tackle the second point in a separate entry, as it's a complicated one. But #1 is pretty straightforward. Very few Americans pursue politics as a career. In fact, most of us are preoccupied by our roles as parents, small business owners, or what have you. So, if you want people participate in politics, you have to find a way to slot it into the very busy lives we all lead.

When I see that ActBlue is ranked #1 in terms of usability it tells me that we're making progress toward that goal. Whether you're a campaign or just someone looking to make a difference in the five minutes they have to spare, ActBlue is your best option.

(And, as a final note, it's not just PdF that feels this way. The New Organizing Insitute (NOI) honored us with the Most Valuable Technology award.)

We asked and you delivered.  This morning the Presumptive Nominee Fund for President had raised just  $448 from 20 contributors.  Today ActBlue Democrats responded to our call to action.  As of this post the fund had raised $4,510 from 84 people.  The Start Fighting Now page alone has raised $4,013!

Thank you so much for joining our effort.

Your contributions
will help ensure that our candidate is ready to fight the Republican nominee. We’re going to keep building the momentum we’ve started today, and we’d love your help.

Can you help us

ActBlue fights for the Democratic Party in its most vulnerable places. Help our nominee today.  Start Fighting Now for the White House!

Are you ready to to take back the White House?  I know I am. 

At the moment we don’t know who the Democratic nominee will be.  What we do know is that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have inspired voters across the nation.  We also know that no matter who the nominee is they’re going to need a sizable war chest to defeat the McCain machine.

I’m ready to start fighting now.  And ActBlue has a way to do that: the Presumptive Democratic Nominee fund for President.  Contributions will be forwarded to the Democratic nominee as soon as he or she has secured the nomination.

Political Director Erin Hill just sent an email out to ActBlue users explaining more.  Below is an excerpt from that email.  Emphasis mine.

The Republicans have their nominee. Time and time again, this is where Democrats are most vulnerable: we take months to select a nominee, and we fight divided against a unified Republican voice.

The hardest, the biggest, the most important fight right now is the fight for the White House.

We need everyone to start working on building a war chest for
the Democratic Nominee. That’s why we’ve created a way for you to help our nominee even before he or she is chosen.

Donate today to help our candidate hit the ground running.

Are you ready to start fighting now?  Here are some steps you can take.

  1. Contribute through ActBlue’s Start Fighting Now fundraising page.
  2. Add the Presumptive Democratic Nominee Fund onto your fundraising page or create a new page and start fundraising!
  3. Spread the word to your friends family and neighbors. 
  4. Join ActBlue’s Start Fighting Now Facebook Group.

ActBlue fights for the Democratic Party in its most vulnerable places. Join us today.  Start fighting now for the White House!

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