I’m Eric Neyman, a grad student working on mechanism design at Columbia. I am working with Yash Upadhyay, a student at UPenn (and previously Y Combinator Summer ‘19), to build a platform that would match donations to opposing political campaigns and send the money to charities instead.

Here’s the basic idea: let’s say that in 2024 Kamala Harris (D) will be running against Mike Pence (R) for president. The platform would collect money from donors to both campaigns; let’s say for example that Harris donors give us $10 million and Pence donors give us $8 million. We would send matching amounts ($8 million on each side) to charity and donate the remaining amount to the political campaign that raised more ($2 million to Harris). The result is that $16 million more gets sent to charity, while not changing how much money the campaigns have relative to one another.

From a donor’s perspective, one way to think about this is: if you donate $100 to the platform, then in the worst case, your money will not end up matched and will go to your preferred campaign (as it would have gone if you’d contributed directly). But in the best case, your money will be matched with $100 on the other side, reducing the opposing candidate’s cash on hand by $100 and causing an extra $200 to go to charity. As a back-of-the-envelope calculation: $7 billion was spent on the 2016 election cycle, a number that has been rapidly increasing. If just 0.1% of the money spent on the 2016 election had instead gone to effective charitable causes, that would amount to a few thousand lives saved.

If you’d like to read more about this idea, see here for a more extensive write-up and here for an analysis of possible incentives issues with the platform, as well as possible fixes.

This idea has been tried before: during the 2012 election, Eric Zolt and Jonathan DiBenedetto tried to create a platform like this and called it Repledge; here’s a Washington Post profile. Unfortunately they didn’t get past the testing phase. Yash and I talked to the two of them a couple weeks ago to learn what worked and what didn’t. They told us that the primary obstacle they ran into wasn’t a technical one (web infrastructure etc.) but a legal one: campaign finance law is complicated, plus the political parties won’t like you (you’re taking their money) and will very likely sue you. Dr. Zolt said that these lawsuits are dangerous despite an FEC ruling saying that Repledge was legal, because there are various ways to interpret the ruling. He gave us a ballpark estimate that creating something like Repledge would cost a quarter of a million dollars. (We are working on getting a more granular estimate for the legal and marketing costs individually, but the largest component would probably be legal.)

The purpose of this post is basically to gauge interest and ask for advice. Here are some concrete questions:

  • If we successfully built this platform, would you consider using it? If your answer is “it depends”, what does it depend on?
  • Do you think building this platform is worth the cost? If so, do you have suggestions for how we might be able to finance this project? What grant-awarding organizations might be a good fit for our project? In particular, would it be reasonable for us to contact the Open Philanthropy Project?
  • One thing I didn’t specify in the description above is how exactly the charity donation process will work. Our tentative plan is to offer a list of charities for donors to choose from; whatever fraction of a donor’s money gets matched will go to the charity they chose. If you have a suggestion you think is better, we’d love to hear it. But if we end up going with this plan, how should we choose the charities? I think the right answer is to strike a balance between two extremes. One extreme is having only GiveWell charities and the like; the other extreme is to have charities that maximally appeal to potential donors (but which are not as effective). How do we choose charities that will seem like a fair list to both Democrats and Republicans? My prediction is that we’ll have a lot more trouble attracting Republicans; should we bias our charity selection toward things Republicans respond particularly positively to (e.g. veterans’ charities) to mitigate this? It would be really helpful to talk to someone who’s studied donor psychology and has opinions about these things!
  • Are you sold on this idea and interested in helping us? If so, shoot me an email at eric.neyman@columbia.edu! I’d love to hear from any of you, particularly if you’re a lawyer or law-adjacent and have advice on how to handle the legal challenges I briefly described. Of if you know any lawyers who might be able to help, that would be great too!

Thanks for any thoughts you have for us!

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What a beautiful idea! De-escalating the political campaigning spend arms race and redirecting the money to high-impact charity sounds lovely! I have some thoughts, not all encouraging.

(1) I suspect your platform might not actually generate much donations

Getting donors to actually navigate to a donation platform is notoriously hard.

My intuition says that the idea is cute enough that it will get some attention (including, perhaps, from the press) but not enough to move lots of money.

However that's just my intuition. Don't trust it. A better guide than my intuition is if you can find a constituency who is willing to promote your concept, and who has influence over political funders. Alternatively, if you have evidence (perhaps conduct some primary research, if necessary?) that people with opposing political views often talk to each other and lament the fact that they throw so much money away in a futile manner, then maybe some press attention could spark something.

(2) To justify your spend, you probably want to generate >$1m in the near to mid term

As a rough rule of thumb, fundraising spend should generate c4x as much as the fundraising cost itself. So if you're going to spend $250k, then you want to generate c$1m to justify the investment.

This is because you should get some reward for taking business risk.

If you believed that the political campaigning spend has some positive benefits (e.g. spreading useful information, or maybe you think that political engagement is an intrinsic good) then your threshold should be higher.

However you probably don't believe this, and given the amount of money spent on political campaigning, I think I agree.

If you believed that the campaign spend is actually harmful, then you could justify a lower target. However note that this would be a fairly convenient belief for you to have, so aim to have really good evidence before even considering this.

(3) Find ways to lower your costs, e.g. through collaboration

If my guesses are right, you have a problem: you need to generate c$1m of donations, and I don't think you will. So to help resolve this...

... I question the value of building your own donation platform.

There is already a plethora of donation platforms who have already spent c$250k in creating a platform. Collaborating with them could

  • lower your costs (and hence lower the $1m target)
  • allow you to expend more effort on getting donors and spreading your message

Downsides are:

  • you would probably have to accept some compromises about the nature of the donation platform

After all, if it hasn't been designed with your needs in mind, it probably won't be perfect.

However I expect that your project probably will achieve more impact through getting people to think about and talk about the problem, and less through the actual donations raised. If my expectations are right, then compromises on the details of the platform are OK.

Groups you could collaborate with:

  • SoGive runs a donation platform (Full disclosure: I founded and run SoGive)
  • Momentum might be a good fit for you (I can intro you if you wish)

(4) You want to "nudge" users to an apolitical, high-impact charity, such as AMF.

We at SoGive have seen some donors interact with this sort of campaign in the past. I suggest that you want to take the following approach:

  • As far as your donors are concerned, the money is going "to charity", which means that they aren't thinking too much about what that charity is, they will just assume that anything is good
  • You need to avoid anything political, because that would distract from the message. So no veterans charities, no climate change, nothing obviously political
  • Because your donors aren't thinking about what the charity is, suggesting something like AMF will work just fine. Feel free to include something on your website explaining the rationale (e.g. "careful analysis, bang for buck, etc etc"). Not many people will read it.
  • I also suggesting making this a "nudge"; i.e. allow users to donate to any charity, but make the default AMF. Not many users will depart from the default.

Good luck, and let me know if you want to talk further!

You (the OP) could also think of collaborating with an existing platform as a lower cost test of the idea. If it works well in that situation and you later realise that the lack of a tailored platform is a barrier to scaling up, you could seek to create one at that point.

Another thought on the lower cost test idea: try to get buy-in from Republicans before spending as much time on outreach to Democrats. If you're failing to get interest from Republicans, the idea might not work.

(Also, like Sanjay, I really like the idea in principle.)

Thanks -- that was really helpful! The 4x rule of thumb you mentioned makes sense and is good to know. We may contact you about collaborating; we're probably not yet at the stage where we'll be making this decision, but we'll keep you posted! And your "nudging" suggestion makes sense, especially in light of what Ryan Carey said about people hating choosing between charities.

I did find one thing you said a bit odd, which is that veterans' charities strike you as political. To me they seem fairly apolitical, as people all across the political spectrum support veterans (even if Republicans tend to feel more positively). I don't think a Democrat would feel negatively about someone donating to a veterans' charity. But I'm curious whether other people think veterans' charities are political. (Because I do think that we will ultimately need to make a concerted effort to appeal to Republicans, and this feels to me like a way to do that without alienating Democrats.)

Re veterans' charities:

I don't have a strong opinion on this, because my experiences are more based on the UK than the US, which may be different.

However if your intuition said that veterans charities are more likely to appeal to Republicans than Democrats, Democrats might have the same intuition

What I can say is that veterans' charities (certainly in the UK, and probably in the US too) are rich with organisations whose impact enormously underperforms AMF. By several orders of magnitude. So if you did decide to include a veterans' charity, you would need a really good reason.

And if you need someone to assess the charities you're considering, let me know -- I can get someone from the SoGive analysis team to take a look.

Thanks. Basically the way I'm thinking about this in my head is: we have some effective charities, and some charities that are meant to encourage people to participate. If we end up getting 10 million in donations, only a quarter of which goes to effective charities, I think that would be a bigger success than getting 1 million in donations, all of which goes to effective charities. I'm thinking about the most effective way to get the platform off the ground, because if it doesn't get off the ground then no money will be sent to charities anyway, and at least my intuition is that it may be helpful to have some charities that are not effective but appealing. (On the other hand, what some people have said about people not wanting to choose between charities and being okay with whatever has made me update against this.) Do you think this strategy would be misguided?

I would find it extremely surprising if compromising on charity choice led to you getting 10x more donations. Based on past experience, I'd surprised if it got you 10% more donations.

Many people would express preferences about where to donate if asked if they have preferences. However if they are going through a donation UX, every time they have one fewer click it's a win for them, and very few donors have preferences strong enough to overcome their desire for a clean UX. (I think this is intuitive for many non-EA people).

Hence my recommendation to focus on just one charity (or basket of high impact charities), but allow users the option to donate to anything if they don't like the default choice.

Consequentialists and EAs have certainly been interested in these questions. We were discussing the idea back in 2009. Toby Ord has written a relevant paper.

I'm not donating to politics, so wouldn't use it. I would say that if an election costs ~$10B, and you might move 0.1% of that into charities for a cost of $0.25M, that seems like a good deal. The obvious criticism, I think, is: "couldn't they benefit more from keeping the money?" I think this is surmountable because donating it may be psychologically preferable. Another reservation would be "You should figure out what happened with Repledge before trying to repeat it", which I think is basically something you should do.

I guess the funding that you initially need is probably significantly less than $250k, so it might make sense to apply for the February deadline of the EA Infrastructure Fund. If you're trying to do things before November (which seems difficult), then you might apply "off-cycle". Although there's a range of other funders of varying degrees of plausibility such as OpenPhil (mostly for funding amounts >$100k), the funders behind Progress studies (maybe the Collisons), the Survival and Flourishing Fund, the Long-term Future Fund etc.

Re choice of charities, well.. we do think that charities vary in effectiveness by many orders of magnitude, so probably it does make sense to be selective. In particular, most people who've studied the question think that those that focus on long-term impact can be orders of magnitude more effective than those that don't. So a lot of EAs (including me) work on catastrophic threats. This would be a good idea if you believe Haidt's ideas about common threats making common ground, which I think is nice. See also his Asteroids Club. This could support choices like the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Hopkins' Centre for Health Security, discussed here. To the extent that you were funding such charities, I think the case for effectiveness (and the case for EA funding) would be stronger.

The ideal choice of charities could also depend to some extent on other design choices taken: 1) do you want to allow trades other than $1:$1? 2) do you allow people to offer to do a trade, specific for one particular charity? On (1), one argument in favour would be that if one party has a larger funding base than the other, then a $1:$1 trade might favour them. Another would be that this naturally balances out the problem of charities being preferred by one side more than the other. One argument against would be that people might view 1:1 as fairer, and donate more. (2), arguments in favour would be that diversity can better satisfy people's preferences, and that you might fund certain charities too much if you just choose one. The argument against would be that people really hate choosing between charities. Overall, for (1) I'd guess "no". For (2), I'd guess "no" again, although I think it could be great to have a system where the charity rotates each week - it could help with promoting the app as well! But these are of course no more than guesses.

Anyway, those are all details - it seems like an exciting project!

Another relevant post is Paul Christiano's Repledge++, which suggests some nice variations. (It might still be worth going with something simple to ease communication, but it seems good to consider options and be aware of concerns.)

As one potential problem with the basic idea, it notes that

I'm not donating to politics, so wouldn't use it.

isn't necessarily true, because if you thought that your money would be matched with high probability, you could remove money from the other campaign at no cost to your favorite charity. This is bad, because it gives people on the other side less incentive to donate to the scheme, because they might just match people who otherwise wouldn't have donated to campaigns.

Yeah, I agree this would be bad. I talk a bit about this here: https://ericneyman.wordpress.com/2019/09/15/incentives-in-the-election-charity-platform/

A possible solution is to send only half of any matched money to charity. Then, from an apolitical altruist's perspective, donating $100 to the platform would cause at most $100 extra to go to charity, and less if their money doesn't end up matched. (On the other hand, this still leaves the problem of s slightly political altruist, who cares somewhat about politics but more about charity; I don't know how to solve this problem.)

And yeah, we've run into Repledge++ and are trying a small informal trial with it right now!

Thanks! Yup, if we were guaranteed success, I agree it would be worth it. On the other hand, I don't know how likely that is or how much money we'd attract if we did get off the ground. We're trying to get people to participate in a rudimentary version of our platform to see how much interest there is in this sort of thing.

Thanks for recommending the funds. I'm not heavily involved in this community (yet) so I wasn't aware of these; we will definitely look into them!

I've thought about allowing matches besides 1:1, but this seems overly complicated. Seems like a much higher barrier to entry if a donor has to make the additional choice of "what ratios am I willing to match my money at." I agree the idea is appealing in theory though!

It's good to know that people hate choosing between charities. It seems like a good solution may be to have a default charity (as Sanjay suggested below) but still give people a choice.

We were discussing the idea back in 2009. Toby Ord has written a relevant paper.

Both links go to the same felicifia page. I suspect you're referring to the moral trade paper: http://www.amirrorclear.net/files/moral-trade.pdf

The obvious criticism, I think, is: "couldn't they benefit more from keeping the money?"

You want people to not have the money any more, otherwise e.g. a single Democrat with a $1K budget could donate repeatedly to match ten Republicans donating $1K each.

I'm not sure what the equilibrium would be, but it seems likely it would evolve towards all money being exactly matched, being returned to the users, and then being donated to the parties the normal way. Or perhaps people would stop using it altogether.

Another important detail here is which charities the money goes to -- the Republican donor may not feel great if after matching the Democrat's donation goes to e.g. Planned Parenthood. In the long run, I'd probably try to do surveys of users to find out which charities they'd object to the other side giving to, and not include those. But initially it could just be GiveWell charities for simplicity.

Re choice of charities

It seems pretty important for this sort of venture to build trust with users and have a lot of legitimacy. So, I think it is probably better to let people choose their own charities (excluding political ones for the reasons mentioned above).

You can still sway donations quite a lot based on the default behavior of the platform. In the long run, I'd probably have GiveWell charities as defaults (where you can point to GiveWell's analysis for legitimacy, and you mostly don't have to worry about room for more funding), and (if you wanted to be longtermist) maybe also a section of "our recommended charities" that is more longtermist with explanations of why those charities were selected.

Ryan, could you point me to "the funders behind Progress studies" you mentioned? I wasn't able to figure out what this refers to by googling. Thanks!

As someone who is currently engaged in raising money for political causes, I think the impact of a project like this is likely to be low, but it may be worth pursuing anyway. While some of the reasons for a low ceiling have already been pointed out (difficulty with positioning/credibility, the natural friction of getting people to use a new platform), I think the main reason is that there are a lot of ways for donors to engage in the political process beyond simply donating directly to campaigns (e.g., by donating to Super PACs, nonprofits with a political mission, etc.), and if partisanship and polarization are sufficiently strong underlying motivators it will be easy for activists to  circumvent this in search of an advantage for their candidate or cause. So I would suggest that a platform like this is more likely to work as intended if the underlying partisan temperature in the country is lowered considerably from where it has been over the past ~15 years. However, I could see the existence of a platform like this as a useful signaling mechanism in that effort even if it doesn't end up actually raising all that much money. Anyway, those are my two cents.

Thanks, this is my biggest concern. I agree that this sort of platform is less likely to work now than a decade ago when the U.S. was less polarized. I don't really have strong counter-evidence to point to; but we are running some rudimentary informal trials to see if we can muster up any interest from donors on both sides. If those are successful, that will give me hope that this can work at scale.

I was thinking about this problem a lot at the beginning of the summer, and I caught myself smiling a ton while reading this at the deja vu! I think this question of moral trade on political goods is fascinating, and I definitely agree with the premise: that spending in politics is much higher than is socially optimal because there is an ‘arms race’ element to political fundraising. Few thoughts:

  • I think the question of political identity verification (i.e., the non-political altruist is happy to lie, pretend like they’re Democrat, and match with Republicans to get double the cash going to GiveWell) is pretty serious. The proposed fix you gave on your blog -- with half of the donations from both sides being locked into their political party -- incurs a huge efficiency loss with 50%. Maybe this is just the best we can do… But I think this problem should get a lot of attention. More on that later.
  • Things like past political donations, proof of party affiliation, etc., may be useful especially in the beginning phase of the market when convincing people that the platform is legit is particularly important. How to use this in tandem with whatever incentive mechanism is used is worth thinking about, as requiring these types of documents also decreases market thickness.
  • An important design question (as others have pointed out) is what ratio the political dollars should be matched (i.e. Democrats have raised double the amount as Republicans, so every 2 Democrat Dollars match with 1 Republican Dollars). You indicated this won’t be a problem in your blog because half of all political campaigns end up being reasonably close in total amounts raised. I think this is a bigger problem -- the last three elections (in which campaign spending has changed dramatically due to some rule changes) had very lopsided total amounts raised. That being said, you’ve done a lot of great work on this already in the write-up you put on your blog. One compromise which balances opacity and setting ρ optimally could just be letting ρ = the current ratio of dollars raised from both sides. There are still endogeneity concerns, but maybe it’s close enough -- I think it's also worth doing some simulations on past campaign histories to see how whether this rate is relatively stable. An alternate idea is to implement an auction scheme to decide the optimal ratio for matching. This may actually work perfectly and be reasonably easy to follow -- I’d need to think about it a bit more.
  • When modeling this, I thought of political dollars for Democrats and Republicans as a positional good, similar to how you did. Fred Hirsch has done some work on this, and his model may be helpful.
  • Finally, while trying to figure out the verification problem, I thought up a loonshot idea which may end up capturing even more benefit for the EA community in the longterm. Idea is to introduce a second market for altruists alongside the political de-escalation market. Here’s how it would work. Let’s say I think the Against Malaria Foundation is 100x more effective than the Rotary Foundation. I can then offer a 100:1 match (up to maybe $1000, because I’m not made of money) on changing people’s donations from the Rotary Foundation to the Against Malaria Foundation. This could, in general, be huge for the altruistic community -- it allows EAs to compel other altruists to donate as if they are also EAs. There are three important points relative to the political market, as well: 1) As long as the market is thick, this solves the verification problem with non-political altruists in the political market, because the apolitical altruist can now get a better multiplier on their donation in the altruists market. 2) I think the people most likely to use the platform (especially in the beginning) are highly altruistic people who are also political. This means they’re probably donating much more to altruistic causes than they are to political ones, so this market will probably get thick quicker. 3) The altruistic market can stand independently from the more tenuous political one, acting as a proof-of-concept. If it works, then we know the matching market works well in theory and that we don’t have the verification roadblock we had before. If it doesn’t work, then at least we didn’t lose something like 250k trying to make it work. (This last bit also works in the reverse; if the altruistic market works, it probably makes it easier to fundraise for the political market.) Of course, this problem is maybe even more complicated, so maybe this is just substituting a hard problem with an even harder one.

I'm a 4th year Math/Econ undergrad at UChicago also super interested in mechanism design and was thinking about working out moral trade markets for my thesis. I sent you an email to collaborate if you're interested!

I'm super excited that you're doing this! It's something I've wanted to exist for a long time, and I considered doing it myself a few years ago. It definitely seems like the legal issues are the biggest hurdle. Perhaps I'm being naively optimistic, but I was at least somewhat hopeful that you could get the political parties to not hate you, by phrasing it as "we're taking away money from the other party".

I'm happy to chat about implementation details, unfortunately I'm pretty busy and can't actually commit enough time to help with, you know, actual implementation. Also unfortunately, it seems I have a similar background to you, and so wouldn't really complement your knowledge very well.

If I were to donate to politics (which I could see happening), I would very likely use this service if it existed.

Thanks! But yeah, I don't think we could get political parties to like us. Because ultimately parties do prefer that they and the opposing party have a billion dollars than they they both have no money, if only because the employment of party operatives depends on it.

Epistemic status: likely false

When I talked about this (and other ideas like it) in EA circles, people seem wildly confident that this idea is obviously good; the only difficulty is cost-effectiveness and implementation details. While I broadly share this intuition, I think confidence about far-reaching social changes is often misplaced.

I'd be interested in someone steelmanning a case/set of arguments against the core idea of

matching a pair of opposing campaigns and sending the money to a less-controversial charity instead.

I think the arguments definitely exist; they just haven't been explicated or criticized in detail.

(Note to Eric et.al: Please don't let this comment discourage you from being excited about your project and doing valuable work! Execution is hard and naysaying often easy).

matching a pair of opposing campaigns and sending the money to a less-controversial charity instead.

It does assume the two campaigns will use money equally effectively, which may well be false.

For example: If there are diminishing returns to campaign spending, then taking equal amounts of money away from both campaigns would help the side which has more money.

This isn't (much) of a problem if you think that the difference between how the two campaigns use money is in expectation neutral. It is a bigger problem if you think there might be systematic differences in how campaigns use money that correlate with better candidates/policies, especially if the correlation is positive. For example, if you think more competent campaign staff translates to more competent political appointees, or if you think it's easier to use money to campaign for true/good things than for inaccurate/bad things, or if you think the default state (without additional money in politics) is worse.

At least anecdotally, I've heard that the last one is a serious problem: in some countries, opposition activists really like the option of eg, buying Facebook ads where the central information source (eg.state mass media) is regime-controlled. (I don't know how big a problem this is in the US, or in practice in those countries for that matter).

More broadly, I think we should maybe reflect on the (the wildly unpopular, but nonetheless endorsed by the highest court in the US) idea that "money is speech," and that limiting speech (including in voluntary ways) has a large host of unintended consequences, some of which may not be positive.

This sounds like a very promising initiative. However, you're asking for advice, so I'll try and identify potential problems.

The platform would collect money from donors to both campaigns; let’s say for example that Harris donors give us $10 million and Pence donors give us $8 million. We would send matching amounts ($8 million on each side) to charity and donate the remaining amount to the political campaign that raised more ($2 million to Harris).

When I pretend I'm a Republican evaluating this proposal, I think: "If the campaign goes forwards as normal, about 44% of the ads will be for Pence and 56% for Harris. That's not great, but it is alright--our message for America will shine through. On the other hand, if we implement donation matching, 100% of the ads will be for Harris. That sounds apocalyptic. It might even start cutting into our base because people will start to think that no one agrees with them."

You could address this by asking Democrats to match $1.25 for every $1 of Republican ad spend, so extreme donation matching means $0 spending on ads, but Democrats might find this to be unfair.

Extreme donation matching is a rather unlikely scenario of course, so it might be better to pitch something more realistic such as "Harris gets $9 million, Pence gets $7 million, $2 million goes to charity". Actually I think maybe that is in fact what you're talking about? Still, there might be room to improve the framing.

Another thought: I would guess that political ads fall into two basic categories:

  • Get out the vote ads
  • Reaching out to swing voter ads

The first kind of ad probably increases political polarization. However, the second kind could reduce polarization--it seems like so much political discourse these days amounts to playing telephone on what a candidate originally said or did, and I wonder if there is some value in people hearing from candidates directly to know what they really endorse. Additionally, swing voter ads inculcate in party bosses the habit of trying to understand the preferences of people who might not fit squarely within their base, and figure out how they might appeal to those preferences.

My guess is many people who would participate in such a donation matching scheme think polarization sucks. I wonder how they would feel about the matching funds to go towards some kind of anti-polarization organization.

Thanks for the thoughts. I agree that the first thing you point out is a problem, but let me just point out: in the event that it becomes a problem, that means that our platform is already a wild success. After all, I'd be very happy if our platform took out single-digit millions of money out of politics (compared to the single-digit billions that are spent). If we become a large fraction of all money going into politics, then yeah, this will become a problem, perhaps solvable in the way you suggest.

Regarding your thoughts on ads, that seems like a plausible hypothesis. But regarding matching funds going toward anti-polarization organizations: well, I'd be quite interested in that if there were effective anti-polarization organizations. And maybe there are, but I'm not aware of any, and I'm not super optimistic.

I think the Center for Election Science, an EA organization that advocates approval voting, could be an effective anti-polarization organization.  There seems to be widespread dissatisfaction with the 2-party system, and I believe it's contributing significantly to polarization.

There's something rather delightful about money being matched from Republican and Democrat donors in order to fund an organization which aims to get rid of the 2-party system :)

Naturally, as the ED for CES, this is my favorite idea!

I agree that the first thing you point out is a problem, but let me just point out: in the event that it becomes a problem, that means that our platform is already a wild success.

Alternatively, people will predict this and then refuse to use it in the first place in those cases.

potenti[I either came up with a similar idea independently and posted it as a shortform, or had read this post years ago while occasionally lurking on the forum and misattributed its recall as my own idea. Anyway, to keep the discussion of the idea in a centralized location, I am pasting an explanation of why I tentatively think the litigation risks would be manageable if the community felt this idea had a reasonable upside and probability of success.]

Caveat: I am a lawyer but am not speaking with any real assessment of the merits beyond a skim of the FEC letter back in 2015. The viewpoint below is based on general principles of civil litigation strategy and is not something anyone should actually rely on without talking to a campaign-finance expert.

My initial reaction to the threat of legal challenges, if someone thinks there is enough potential value here, is to commit to funding this appropriately and just let them sue. If you were particularly worried about litigation, set it up the first time so that the only candidate pair is from the general-election presidential race. That should sharply limit the number of entities that have Article III standing to file a lawsuit, maybe just to the candidates and their campaign committees themselves. Make one of them risk the negative publicity of filing a lawsuit to shut down a non-profit website that was benefitting impoverished people in Africa. In any event, do not set up a pair in a House or Senate race where one of the candidates is a sure loser (who makes a good sacrificial lamb for a political party that wants the website shut down) or a clear winner (who can probably risk a reputational hit).

In a sense, this creates a bifurcation of risk -- there's a risk the website just doesn't catch on, and a risk of litigation, but probably a low risk of both at the same time. What rational candidate is going to commit money to litigation to secure an a small amount of additional funds for themselves when: (1) the amount isn't that much; (2) they alone bear optics/PR risk; (3) their opponent gets the exact same benefit they get without incurring any of the costs? For litigation to make sense, you'd either need to believe the amount of money coming through this site was going to be pretty significant, or would need to believe that the marginal benefit of an extra dollar to your campaign was much greater than for your opponent.

Next, any litigation would likely be -- like many election-related challenges -- only practically winnable in accelerated proceedings. With a favorable FEC opinion letter, few district judges would grant emergency relief to a litigant like a temporary restraining order. In ordinary litigation, the federal courts can take a while to get around to deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction.  Would a judge be inclined to put this high on their priority list? Depends on the judge, but I think it would only get priority if pretty successful. The ship may well have sailed by then -- and note that a decision by a district court is often not a particularly effective weapon for other litigants who want to sue you in future elections. (For the lawyers, if there is a concern about offensive collateral estoppel, I think the solution is for the next attempt to be with a different, unrelated non-profit with whom the first non-profit is not in privity.)

If the court did grant a preliminary injunction, I would ask the court to (1) require the organization to pass through 100% of funds to both sides, but (2) require the opposing party to post an injunction bond in the amount lost to charity [at least to its own candidate]. Injunction bonds aren't required as often as I think they should be, but it would be worth a shot. Alternatively, you could ask that the organization be allowed to continue but required to lock up the money pending final judgment.

I'd also consider whether to stick a nice "poison pill" in the user agreement. Suppose that there were an adverse litigation outcome -- what should happen to the money? You could try adding a provision that it has to be returned to the donors, attempting to deprive the plaintiff of any concrete benefit from winning the suit in the first place. They would be no better off, unless and until their would-be donors chose to give them the money. And, if I were a candidate, I would be worried that some percentage of my donors would be annoyed at my litigation antics and that my opponent's donor re-gift rate would be higher.

I suspect Professor Zolt didn't move forward in part because (if I understand correctly) his for-profit entity was going to be funded by a tiny sliver of the funds flowing through the entity.  That's probably not enough revenue to justify defending this in litigation. On the other hand, if the monies were going to something like GiveDirectly (more legible) or AMF, the EA community "captures" the vast majority of the value of the offset funds. So the community should more willing to accept a quarter-million in expected litigation costs if the idea has upside to drive at least several times that to effective charities.

Finally, a less effective but potentially "safer" way to do something along the same lines would be to form a SuperPAC. I am reminded of the one Stephen Colbert did back in his Colbert Report days as a parody of the campaign-finance system. That's a much harder attack surface, as the main attraction of SuperPACs is that they are  . . . mostly unregulated.

I would have to check whether a SuperPAC can donate to another SuperPAC, which would be an easy way of getting rid of the non-netted funds. Simply returning the non-netted funds might be another option. Actually running ads would be awkward. Colbert donated most of the proceeds of his super-PAC to non-political charities when he dissolved it, so shipping the netted funds to the chosen charit(ies) at the end of the election shouldn't be a problem.

The biggest potential downside of this approach, in addition to probably being less legible to would-be donors, is that donations to a superPAC definitely are not tax-deductible (vs. I don't know if netted donations to something like I originally suggested would be). However, it might be possible to hold the money in a for-profit company temporarily, and then transfer only monies not netted to a SuperPAC with the rest to charity. This may be a step toward greater litigation risk, but sending money to candidates and standard PACs is  more regulated than sending it to superPACs. So the risk would probably be lower than the original candidate-centered model.

Could this be abused by people who donate to charity anyway? Suppose I'm a Democrat and was planning on donating $100 to charity and $100 to the Democrats. I first put $100 on the platform.

1. If the Republicans end up donating more, my platform donation counterfactually goes to charity and the Republicans get $100 less for their campaign. And now I can donate $100 directly to the Democrats. So, instead of $100 to charity + $100 to Democrats as originally planned, I can now do $200 to charity ($100 from me, $100 from Republicans), $100 to Democrats and -$100 to Republicans.

2. If the Democrats donate more, my platform donation counterfactually goes to the Democrats. And I can donate again to charity. (There's no gain here.)

How will you build a strong-enough political brand such that people on either side trust the matching service to do what it says it's doing?

Maybe have staff members who are respected members of both parties?

Or set up individual wealthy donors who are planning to donate roughly the same amount with one another and have them place money in escrow?

If we find such wealthy donors, we could match them against each other instead! But I suppose it's possible that we'd find donors who'd be willing to match with each other up to however much is contributed to the platform, as a way of raising interest. Like how cool would it be if Sheldon Adelson and George Soros agreed to this sort of thing? (I'm not even remotely optimistic though :P)

Sounds like a fun project, but I'm skeptical that this would be widely used.

As a user of the tool, would I be able to see how much had been donated to each candidate? If I support candidate X and I learn or infer that very few candidate Y supporters have donated, then I would have a high expectation that my money would go to candidate X rather than charity. The gamification effect of trying to out-donate my opponent would be weaker.

I think there is a high possibility that the tool would primarily attract the attention of left-leaning people. One reason for this is that the alleged advantage better funding affords to campaigns tends to be a left-wing talking point.  And of course, most of the rationalists and EA-aligned people I know lean left.

Also, I'm probably not the target audience because I never donated to a political campaign. But my intuition is that I'd get fuzzies by knowing my money went to my candidate. Will partisan donors get fuzzies knowing that they stopped money from going to their less preferred candidate?

Finally, I agree with Linch that the tool will best serve donors who think the difference between how the two campaigns use the money is in expectation neutral. Unfortunately, I worry that the mental burden of having to even make such an evaluation -- the marginal value of one's dollar to each candidate's campaign -- could deter non-EA people. 

Datapoint: Before the 2016 election, the Koch brothers set a specific budget for their intended spending; this would allow for something potentially similar, with Democratic mega-donors claiming to donate less if the Koch brothers lowered their intended spending. I tried to contact the Koch brothers and a number of Democratic donors, but received no replies. Uptake outside EA may be difficult.

Inside EA, there’s likely to be a big imbalance, with far more Democrats than Republicans- do you have plans to recruit outside Republicans in particular?

One possible advantage to using the platform would be that donations to charities are tax deductible, whereas donations to campaigns are not. If set up well, this mechanism could enable somebody to 'donate' to a campaign with tax deductibility.

I would guess there are laws preventing this kind of thing.

Braver Angels: A vaguely aligned group - one may want to try to speak at its group meetings, or pilot programs wit hthem.

At the beginning, you might want to consider accepting donations to any charity (even if you give some suggestions), and then transferring the funds manually, to find out which charities people would want to donate to and to reduce the friction while you grow.

I would use this. At least, I would use it in the early stages, in order to help build momentum, and I would also share it with my politically-minded friends.

Other commenters mentioned something similar, but I think your framing and marketing will be really important. Maybe talk to a sociologist or psychologist about why people donate money to political campaigns? It would probably help for your website to cater to those same motivations.

Thanks! I agree we should talk to an expert on these sorts of things. Probably "sociologist or psychologist" isn't the right category though? I'd guess that talking to someone who specializes in political ads, voter turnout, etc. would be the right person to talk to. I'm curious what other people think.

Love the idea. I think it could work.

  1. Could also be partially framed or reworked in terms of a “which side is more generous” contest. This “generosity stick measuring contest” draws a lot of media attention every year.

  2. Maybe some country or state would be willing to make this part of their campaign finance laws.

  3. There are pockets of Conservatives or at least traditional religious people who are among the biggest supporters of global health and development charities. One with the a vague “Christian” association might be a nice middle ground.

  4. This reminded me of an idea I have relating to legal battles and settlements. Maybe DM me to discuss?

If we successfully built this platform, would you consider using it? If your answer is “it depends”, what does it depend on?

I wouldn't use it, since I don't donate to campaigns, but I would certainly push all my more political friends and family members to use it.

I think this isn't a big concern in two-party systems, but: if two candidates were using such a platform to raise their funds (or if someone like you set up a widely-used platform for two candidates only), wouldn't this put those candidates at a big disadvantage in comparison to all other candidates?

I'm really wishing for a version of this which would be in a politician's active interest to use (and be in the interest of any pair of politicians to set up).

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