WASHINGTON – Elrick Williams’ toddler niece Carlyn may be one of the youngest contributors to this year’s presidential campaign. The 2-year-old gave $2,300 to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
So did her sister and brother, Imara, 13, and Ishmael, 9, and her cousins Chan and Alexis, both 13. Altogether, according to newly released campaign finance reports, the extended family of Williams, a wealthy Chicago financier, handed over nearly a dozen checks in March for the maximum allowed under federal law to Obama.
Such campaign donations from young children would almost certainly run afoul of campaign finance regulations, several campaign lawyers said. But as bundlers seek to raise higher and higher sums for presidential contenders this year, the number who are turning to checks from underage givers appears to be on the rise.
“It’s not difficult for a banker or a trial lawyer or a hedge fund manager to come up with $2,300, and they’re often left wanting to do more,” said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “That’s when they look across the dinner table at their children and see an opportunity.”
Although campaign finance laws set a limit of $2,300 per donor per year, they do not explicitly bar donors based on age. And young donors abound in the fundraising reports filed by presidential contenders this year.
Just how much campaign cash is coming from children is uncertain – the FEC does not require donors to provide their age. But the amount written by those identifying themselves as students on contribution forms has risen dramatically this year, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. During the first six months of the 2000 presidential campaign, students gave $338,464. In 2004, that rose to $538,936.
This year, the amount has nearly quadrupled, to $1,967,111.
“More often than not, you’re dealing with people who are simply trying to circumvent the limits of what they can give,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of campaign finance reform organization Democracy 21 who sought, unsuccessfully, to outlaw child donations five years ago.
Congress tried to outlaw political contributions from those under age 18 as part of the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002, but the Supreme Court struck down that provision as an infringement on the constitutional rights of minors. With that ruling in mind, the Federal Election Commission wrote new regulations two years ago.
The regulations established a three-step test to determine whether a contribution is acceptable: It must be made with the child’s money, the parent can not reimburse the child for making the donation, and the contribution has to be knowing and voluntary.