The Federal Election Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to recommend that Congress ban political campaigns from guiding donors by default into recurring contributions through prechecked boxes, a month after a New York Times investigation showed that former President Donald J. Trump’s political operation had steered huge numbers of unwitting supporters into repeated donations through that tactic.
The bipartisan commission, which serves as the nation’s top election watchdog agency, is divided evenly between three Democratic-aligned commissioners and three Republicans, a composition that often leads to stalemate. But commissioners of both parties, including three Republicans appointed by Mr. Trump, came together on Thursday to ask Congress to strengthen campaign finance law to protect online donors.
“It’s important that donors be able to exercise their choices freely,” Ellen L. Weintraub, a longtime Democratic commissioner on the F.E.C., said in an interview. “If their money is being taken from them because of some reverse checkoff option they didn’t notice, then they are not giving their money freely.”
“It’s almost like theft,” Ms. Weintraub added. “I don’t want to see donors tricked.”
The Times investigation showed how the Trump operation, facing a cash crunch last fall, had deployed prechecked boxes to enroll every donor in weekly withdrawals — unless they unchecked the box. Then the Trump operation made the disclaimer that disclosed that fact increasingly opaque with extraneous text. The Trump operation also prechecked a second box, known as a “money bomb,” that doubled a person’s contribution.
Demands for refunds soared and credit card companies experienced a surge of fraud complaints, the investigation found.
All told, the Trump operation had to refund more than $122 million to online supporters, 10.7 percent of what it had raised in 2020 through WinRed, the Republican online donation-processing platform. The Biden operation’s overall refund rate on ActBlue, the parallel Democratic donation-processing platform, was 2.2 percent.
In addition to the F.E.C.’s recommendation, Facebook said it was reviewing its policies for advertisers who link to prechecked recurring donation pages. Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said that such tactics did not violate the company’s existing policies for political fund-raising but that “we’re taking a close look at how this fund-raising practice is used on our platform to ensure that we protect the people using our services.”
The F.E.C., in its legislative recommendation, disclosed that its staff was “regularly contacted” by donors who “do not recall authorizing recurring contributions.”
“The Commission’s experience strongly suggests that many contributors are unaware of the ‘pre-checked’ boxes and are surprised by the already completed transactions appearing on account statements,” its recommendation said.
The commission asked Congress to amend the law to require the “affirmative consent” of all contributors before enrolling them in programs to make recurring withdrawals.
The vote also amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that, under current law, the nation’s top elections watchdog agency is virtually powerless to stop campaigns from opting donors unknowingly into repeated contributions. Adav Noti, who previously worked in the F.E.C. general counsel’s office and is now a litigator with the Campaign Legal Center, said it was notable that any recommendation had been adopted by a commission that is so often stymied by partisanship.
“It’s pretty rare that they agree on a recommendation related to substantive campaign finance law,” Mr. Noti said. The package of recommendations also includes asking Congress to make clear that no political funds can be used for personal purposes and to crack down on so-called scam PACs that spend little on politics but enrich their operators.
WinRed, which is the dominant digital donation platform for the Republican Party, allows candidates up and down the ballot to precheck the recurring donation box. Mr. Trump, for instance, continues to use such prechecked boxes for his new political action committee.
And in the recent House special election in Texas, one Republican candidate, Dan Rodimer, deployed a prechecked recurring donation box on one donation page that said he would take withdrawals every week — until Nov. 29, 2022, more than 80 weeks away.
“This is all standard in campaign fund-raising,” said R.C. Maxwell, the press secretary for Mr. Rodimer. “Our campaign policy is to cease recurring donations at the end of the campaign.” Mr. Rodimer lost, finishing in 11th place.
ActBlue has said it is phasing out prechecked recurring donation boxes, although two of the most important Democratic groups ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, continue to deploy the tool.