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FEC mulls matching for Net campaign gifts

Presidential hopefuls are welcome to take campaign contributions via the Net, but there is just one problem: the government won't match payments made with plastic.

Presidential hopefuls are welcome to take campaign contributions via the Net, but there is just one problem: the government won't match payments made with plastic.

But that rule could be on the path to revision. Spurred by former New Jersey senator and Democratic White House contender Bill Bradley, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is tomorrow expected to consider a groundbreaking proposal that the rule be overhauled to accommodate the recent burst in cyberdemocracy.

Individuals can donate up to $1,000 to presidential candidates, and under the federal Match Act, the government meets those contributions by up to $250 per person. Due to fraud concerns, however, there are strict rules regarding matching that narrow the forms of acceptable payment to signed checks and money orders.

But on the Net, credit cards are the common currency. About 55 percent of voting-age Americans have Net access, according to Dataquest, and although it is easy for candidates to collect money online, for now they are giving up the valuable public matching dollars.

The FEC's pending decision underscores the myriad ways the Net stands to affect the election process. Already campaign contribution records are online, and some states are taking steps to allow citizens to cast their votes online.

Bradley, who has pledged not to take political action committee money and is raising funds via his Web site, is one candidate who obviously doesn't want to miss out on the lucrative matching funds. So Bradley is out to change the system. He asked the FEC to amend the rule, which will then have to be approved by Congress and signed by the president.

To curb fraud, Bradley's fundraising committee has proposed to submit hard copies of the electronic donation forms to the FEC and will use a processing vendor that will compare contributor information to the name and address on the credit card account. Online contributors also will have to attest that they are not donating on behalf of another party, labor organization, corporation, or bank.

"We have all these precautions to ensure that the person is a person and to distinguish who they are," said FEC spokesman Ian Stirton.

In a draft opinion by FEC staff, the scales tilt toward Bradley's request and call for a revision of the Match Act to accept credit cards.

"The commission notes the rising popularity of the Net, both as a form of information gathering and as a vehicle for financial transactions," the draft opinion states.

"The commission observes the numerous safeguards built into your proposal," it continues. "The consistent and full implementation of all these procedures would offer substantial assurance that your proposal to solicit and accept contributions through the Internet, by submission of an electronic form and use of a credit card, would comply with the Match Act."

If the rule is changed it will be retroactive to affect contributions to presidential candidates made after January 1, 1999. The move would no doubt bolster Bradley's budget; according to the FEC's March tallies, he has raised $4 million, compared with Vice President Al Gore's $8.8 million fund and Republican front-runner Texas Gov. George W. Bush's $7.5 million.

Maybe that's why the Net's role in the 2000 election is not lost on Bradley.

"I don't know if it's going to be 2000 or 2004, but one presidential election very soon is going to be decided because somebody understood how important the Internet was, respected the people who were on it, and wanted them to be a part of something new and different that made America a better place," Bradley states on his site.