Elrick Williams’s 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.”
Asked about the Williams family giving, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, “As a policy, we don’t take donations from anyone under the age of 15.” After being asked by The Post about the matter, he said the children’s donations will be returned.
Although campaign finance laws set a limit of $2,300 per donor per campaign, they do not explicitly bar donors based on age. And young donors abound in the fundraising reports filed by presidential contenders this year.
A supporter of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), Susan Henken of Dover, Mass., wrote her own $2,300 check, and her 13-year-old son, Samuel, and 15-year-old daughter, Julia, each wrote $2,300 checks, for example. Samuel used money from his bar mitzvah and money he earned “dog sitting,” and Julia used babysitting money to make the contributions, their mother said. “My children like to donate to a lot of causes. That’s just how it is in my house,” Henken said.
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.
“What’s driving it is a desire by maxed-out donors to max out on their maxing out,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of campaign finance reform organization Democracy 21, who sought, unsuccessfully, to outlaw child donations five years ago. “More often than not, you’re dealing with people who are simply trying to circumvent the limits of what they can give.”
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 that tried to balance what it considered a legitimate desire among some children to make political contributions against the possibility that parents would seek to pad their donations by funneling money through children.
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 cannot reimburse the child for making the donation and the contribution has to be knowing and voluntary.
That last part of the test is the one that would seem to rule out a 2-year-old, said Michael E. Toner, a former FEC chairman who helped draft the rules. “If they are 16 or 17, they’re clearly old enough to know what they’re doing, as compared to someone who is, say, 10 years old. . . . I don’t know any 2-year-old who is capable of making that kind of decision.”