With millions of match solicitations hitting inboxes daily, have you ever wondered who’s matching your contribution? In virtually every case, nobody is. It’s a scam.

In one of my campaigns, an operative suggested I send a fundraising email containing an offer to “double their impact,” implying that a $50 contribution would yield $100 to my campaign. I already knew the answer, but I asked the consultant, “Who would be matching the contributions?” He told me the truth: “Nobody is actually matching anything.” I then asked why we would tell our supporters something untrue. The operative’s justification sidestepped the moral issue, claiming that: “This is a proven tactic that really helps drive in contributions. Campaigns on both sides of the aisle, up and down the ballot, use this as a way to raise funds.” I told him we weren’t going to lie to our supporters, and we never sent the email.

I wish I could say that my experience with the consultant was unique, but most everyone is doing it. Democrats and Republicans, state and federal candidates, campaigns and committees, are all getting in on the scam, enabled by fundraising vendors who privately acknowledge the seediness of it all. Campaigns are so addicted to the tactic that some demand vendors employ it or else.

When did it become acceptable for political leaders to deceive their supporters for contributions? I have been in and around campaigns (mine and others) for decades, and I can assure you that it’s not normal. There’s always been puffery, like “I’m the best candidate,” or “The stakes couldn’t be higher.” But this is different. This is a claim built on a lie — on fraud — and in less than a decade has become the norm in political campaign fundraising.

It’s not uncommon for legitimate charities to have a wealthy benefactor who will make a large gift, and the organization will leverage it to encourage matching support from smaller donors. People who give money to charitable causes are generally familiar with this fundraising approach, and when done properly, it is perfectly legitimate.

But in the context of political fundraising, there’s virtually never an actual donor agreeing to “match” contributions. In fact, those matches would in most cases break the law. Federal (and usually state) law imposes individual contribution limits that would prohibit donors from making the kind of large contributions needed for this sort of matching. For example, the Federal Election Commission limits donor contributions to $3,300 per election ($6,600 for the primary and general election combined). Using simple math, an email promising to have a 1,500 percent match on a single $500 contribution would automatically exceed the federal campaign contribution limits. Additionally, 38 states impose statutory contribution limits on individual donors, some of which are significantly lower than the federal campaign limits.

Fundraisers employ this tactic because it works extremely well. Small dollar donors who give $25 or $50 are more likely to give if they believe their contribution will be matched and therefore make an impact beyond what they can afford to give. It’s a tactic that preys on low-income individuals and seniors who are susceptible to a variety of other scams. More than half of online contributors whose donations were processed by one of the leading online fundraising companies in the 2020 election cycle described themselves as “retired.” That’s precisely who they are targeting.

Many in the political campaign industry won’t admit the problem. They have further normalized lying, which has a corrosive effect on public trust generally and trust in candidates and elected officials specifically. But those who aren’t bothered by the decaying of our societal norms might be bothered by the fact that in many jurisdictions, this scam is illegal.

I have intentionally avoided naming names in this column because my goal is not to embarrass or single out bad actors. The practice is so widespread, it would be impracticable to list them all here. More importantly, that’s not the point anyway. I am writing this to bring awareness to the problem and notify those who fundraise on deception that they do so at their own peril. In Arkansas, political campaigns and consultants who use this tactic should know that I will inform Arkansans and take appropriate legal action. Arkansas grants my office broad authority to investigate scams both under our Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the criminal code. And I will use it.

Fundraising is an integral part of the political process. But lying to voters to raise a few more bucks is unacceptable and potentially illegal. It is bad for politics, bad for our country, and bad for those who practice it.

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