“Congratulations! Your interface has been approved.”
Arrival of that email from the State Elections Enforcement Commission acknowledging acceptable fundraising software is an early and important milestone in the life of every campaign in Connecticut.
It signals a readiness for an essential function of the modern campaign: Processing an online credit-card payment.
In Connecticut, the quality of data collected with online contributions is proving central to when — or whether — candidates will qualify for public financing of their campaigns under the Citizens’ Election Program.
The elections commission is scheduled to vote Wednesday on applications for grants from seven candidates competing in an Aug. 9 primary. Any deficiencies must be corrected by Friday, the last call to qualify before the primary.
Money has been called the mother’s milk of politics, but a more apt comparison is oxygen. Without it, campaigns quickly die.
“The percentage of online contributions is just constantly escalating. We have had to develop processes so when people come in for grants, contributions made online are as well-documented as cash or check,” said Josh Foley, a spokesman for the commission.
Four of the candidates on the Wednesday agenda are in primaries for statewide office, challengers chasing convention-endorsed candidates for treasurer and secretary of the state who already have their public grants of $484,125.
Karen DuBois-Walton and Maritza Bond are Democrats from New Haven. The former is a candidate for treasurer; the latter for secretary of the state. Terrie Wood of Darien and Brock L. Weber of New Britain are Republican candidates for secretary of the state.
Update: The commission approved the grants for DuBois-Walton and Wood, but deferred action on Bond’s application.
Weber quit over the weekend, posting a note on Facebook. It is unclear if the prospect of not qualifying was the reason. He did not return calls for comment on Monday or Tuesday.
It’s free money, but not easy. To get it, candidates for statewide offices other than governor have to raise $86,600 in qualifying contributions from thousands of donors: At least $78,000 must come from in-state contributors, and all of them giving between $5 and $290.
State contractors are barred from giving. Lobbyists are OK, so long as they give no more than $100. The hard part is ensuring that online contributions are properly documented.
The campaign of DuBois-Walton, one of three candidates for the Democratic nomination for state treasurer, applied for her grant on July 6. Two days later, her deputy treasurer sent an email marked URGENT to donors.
“There was an error with the online processor, required information was not collected,” read the missive from Christine Bartlett-Josie, a partner in DNA Campaigns, a firm that handles every from fundraising to direct mail.
As a result, some contributions came without noting the occupations and employers of donors, or questions asking if a donor was a lobbyist or contractor were answered inaccurately or not at all.
“For some reason, the entire form did not show up. It was just your name, your address, your credit card information — nothing else,” Bartlett-Josie said Tuesday.
About $4,000 in contributions were affected, she said. A supplemental itemization of qualifying contributions was submitted Tuesday, and she said commission staff indicated they will recommend approval Wednesday.
Using an “AVS code,” the commission also flags contributions made by credit cards that are billed to an address other than the contributor’s residence. AVS stands for “address verification service,” a way online merchants also guard against fraud.
Bartlett-Josie said those contributors get five requests or questions from the elections enforcement commission: Please provide your residential address, the billing address for your card and an explanation if they are not the same. Also, affirm the card is a personal account, and the bills are “paid by you, out of your own personal funds.”
“That’s annoying, is what people say, when they answer that fifth question, is this your personal card, and is the credit card paid by your personal funds?” she said. “As long as it’s my personal card, does it matter who pays my bills?”
Commission officials, who offer written advice on how to fix deficient online contribution reports, say the questions are necessary for several reasons. One, different contributors sometimes use the same card; and two, the actual residence is relevant in legislative races, where a large percentage of qualifying contributions must come from the towns in a district.
Wood, a state lawmaker, said she finished her fundraising in the middle of June, but the application was delayed by missing data from contributors.
“We had to go back to a number of people who didn’t fill out their occupation or made a joint contribution, a husband and wife,” Wood said. “You have to tell them, it has to be one or the other.”
She expects approval Wednesday.
Dominic A. Rapini, the convention-endorsed Republican candidate for secretary of the state, was the first statewide candidate to qualify for public financing. His application was approved June 1, giving him an eight-week head start on Wood.
“You know what my treasurer did? She did every donation the day they came in, and she vetted them,” he said. “We’d kick things back to donors or told them when they were ineligible or they already gave us too much money.”
The early funding has allowed him to hire staff to organize volunteers and do voter outreach and settle on a marketing plan, he said.
“Once we knew the money was coming, we put people in place to go make this stuff happen,” Rapini said.
Neither of the major-party nominees for governor are using the voluntary public-financing system for the second consecutive election cycle. Gov. Ned Lamont and his GOP challenger, Bob Stefanowski, are largely self-funding their campaigns, as they did in 2018.
Tim Herbst, one of the publicly financed candidates in the five-way GOP primary for governor in 2018, said that race demonstrated that public financing does not create a level playing field against self-funders who can run television ads in January or February.
“By the time we got the grant to the primary, it was like six weeks away,” Herbst said. “It’s just too short of a window to get a statewide campaign off the ground.”
But the program, which was created to minimize the influence of money in politics, still is the most common source of funds used by candidates for General Assembly and the statewide constitutional offices other than governor.
Campaign officials say the program is viable when everyone participates, and grants approved this week still provide ample time to deliver a message before the Aug. 9 primary.
“The last two weeks is really what is crucially important. Nobody’s paying attention or listening to you before that, honestly,” Bartlett-Josie said. “So I think it’s alright as long as you get your money before that, and if you have a good consultant, and your mail and all that has been teed up, right?”
Her client, DuBois-Walton, is competing against two Democrats who already have their grants: Dita Bhargava of Greenwich and the party-endorsed candidate, Erick Russell of New Haven.
Bhargava already is advertising on television. Russell is expected to follow this week. Bhargava’s application was approved on July 6; Russell’s on the 13th.
In the Democratic contest for secretary of the state, the grant for the party-endorsed candidate, Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk, was approved on July 6. She has begun her direct-mail outreach to voters with an oversized postcard with a bio and instructions on voting by absentee.
Russ Morin, a former state representative who is managing Bond’s campaign, had no complaints about the process.
“It’s a level playing field for everyone,” said Morin, who used public financing for his campaigns. “So the rules are the same. And you can’t complain about the rules when they treat everyone the same.”
One of the other candidates on the agenda Wednesday is Jan Hochadel of Meriden, an endorsed Democrat running for the open 13th Senate District seat. This week, the pressure for her to get a grant in time for the primary evaporated.
Her challenger, Anthony Mangiafico of Middletown, said he is dropping out — the result of being unable to qualify for public financing.
“I think this election cycle is difficult for many reasons,” Mangiafico said. “One, the inflation. Things are really expensive, and people who might have given $100 two years ago are giving $50. People who gave $30 two years ago might be giving you $10.”