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Local Idaho candidates begin using GoFundMe to raise campaign money

An early voting dropbox outside Boise City Hall on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Mountain Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
An early voting dropbox outside Boise City Hall on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Mountain Sun)

Elections officials say using GoFundMe is legal, but disclosure laws must be followed

A popular online crowdfunding site known for helping people raise money for medical expenses, memorials and charities has become a campaign finance tool in the race for a school board seat in Idaho’s largest school district.

Two candidates who filed for November’s West Ada School District school board election — Lori Frasure and Mike Willits — have used the website GoFundMe to raise thousands of dollars. However, Willits sent the Idaho Capital Sun a statement Wednesday saying he has withdrawn his name as a candidate and is no longer running for the school board.

Officials from the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office and the Ada County Clerk’s Office told the Sun it is not illegal for local candidates in Idaho to use GoFundMe or other online crowdfunding sites to raise money for political campaigns.

GoFundMe also allows the practice. Raising money to support a school board and political fundraising is allowed within GoFundMe’s terms of service, a regional spokesperson for the company said.

However, they all stressed that it is still up to the candidate to record all of their campaign finance contributions and follow all of Idaho’s campaign finance disclosures requirements and laws.

“Political fundraising is allowed, it is the candidate’s responsibility to comply with local election laws,” GoFundMe spokesperson Jenny Perillo wrote in an email to the Idaho Capital Sun. “GoFundMe will help identify donors at candidates’ request.”

Campaign finance disclosure laws and transparency reports are important because they give the public insight into who is trying to influence elections or policies using money. This year, there are new campaign finance laws in effect for local candidates. Once local candidates raise $500, they must begin filing reports with the state disclosing the contributions. Campaign finance reports are available on the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office website and available to search by candidate’s name, by contributor’s name, by political action committee or by expenditure.

If GoFundMe or other sites allow anonymous contributions and a candidate accepts an anonymous contribution, that could create legal problems for the candidate.

“There are no anonymous contributions,” Chief Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck said in a telephone interview. “It is there (in state law) in black and white. That should be clear enough.”

Perillo from GoFundMe said the company will help candidates identify contributors.

Houck said he isn’t sure the Secretary of State’s Office has ever been asked before about local candidates using GoFundMe.

Houck said he can’t really give candidates advice about GoFundMe because he isn’t sure exactly how the online fundraising platform works or what its current policies are. Houck said he has used the service to donate to a nonprofit organization in the past and knew GoFundMe accepted anonymous donations at that time.

He also said GoFundMe could change its practices or the data it provides at any time. That’s why he’s worried about making a definitive statement about GoFundMe; if he said either “yes” or “no” today, GoFundMe could make a change to the data it provides tomorrow that could change his answer.

“We cannot make a recommendation from the Secretary of State’s Office. I would be remiss to say whether or not a company like GoFundMe or any other vendor can or cannot be used,” Houck said.

“The smart choice is for the candidate to understand the requirements under statute and then find out if the platform can provide that,” Houck said.

Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane says the most important thing is for the candidate to collect the information they need for disclosure.

“How they raise it is not our business, as long as they comply with the law,” McGrane said in a telephone interview.

McGrane helped create a campaign finance pamphlet that is designed to help candidates meet disclosure laws.

The pamphlet tells candidates, “All money raised or spent in relation to a campaign must be accounted for and tracked. That includes the use of the candidate’s personal money.”

McGrane referenced former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa when he talked about his philosophy for transparency and campaign finance.

“The goal is sunshine and transparency, not trying to penalize people,” McGrane said. “The goal is to get information out there. We want to do everything we can in assisting people with complying.”

Houck and McGrane are running for secretary of state in 2022. Both of them told the Idaho Capital Sun they are not using GoFundMe in connection with their campaigns.

What are candidates required to report under Idaho law?

Campaign finance laws can be confusing and nuanced, especially for first-time candidates seeking unpaid offices such as a seat on a local school board.

That’s why McGrane, the Ada County clerk, wanted to create a simple pamphlet to help candidates for city, schools and local offices.

Here are some basic campaign finance requirements for city, school board and local office candidates that McGrane highlights in his pamphlet. Specific state laws are found in Title 67, Chapter 66 of Idaho Code, which covers election campaign contributions and expenditures and lobbyists.

  • Candidates must account for all campaign money raised or spent. 
  • Once a candidate has raised $500, the candidate must appoint a political treasurer and begin reporting the campaign finances, including the sources and expenses of the first $500.
  • The maximum contribution for individuals, businesses and political committees is $1,000 per election. Any single contribution of $1,000 must be reported and disclosed. 
  • No anonymous donations allowed, regardless of whether it’s an unmarked envelope full of cash left on a table at a campaign rally or an online contribution left through a crowdfunding site. 
  • If a candidate receives an anonymous donation of more than $50, the candidate can try to return it to the contributor. If the candidate cannot determine the contributor’s name, the money “shall be transmitted immediately” to the Idaho State Controller’s Office for deposit into the public school fund, according to Idaho law
  • Candidates must disclose and report the full name and address of everyone who contributes $50 or more. Candidates must still track the full name and address of everyone who contributes anything less because the $50 threshold is cumulative. That means if someone gives $25 in September, for instance, a candidate must record their name and address because if that person gives another $30 in October, it triggers the $50 threshold.
  • All campaign materials, such as yard signs and flyers, must include a disclosure statement, such as “paid for by” and list the candidate’s name, the office sought and the name of the political treasurer. 
  • Candidates for office all now report campaign finance reports on the Secretary of State’s Office’s online campaign finance portal
  • In the year of the election, candidates must report campaign finance disclosures monthly, and the deadline falls on the 10th of every month. There is a $50 fine for each day a candidate is late filing the disclosure once the first 48 hours after the deadline passes. 
  • Annual reports in non-election years are due Jan. 10. 

How much money did the West Ada candidates raise?

The two candidates who used GoFundMe in the West Ada school board race — Frasure and Willits, who said he is no longer running — have both filed campaign finance reports on time with the Secretary of State’s office. That includes the August 2021 report, the report that was due most recently.

Frasure’s landing page on GoFundMe indicated Friday that she had raised $12,920 via GoFundMe. Overall, she reported to the state she has raised more than $18,900 in total contributions.

Willit’s GoFundMe homepage indicates he raised $2,520 through the website as of Friday. He reported to the state he has raised more than $3,600 from all sources. There is no requirement for Willits or any candidate who drops out before Election Day to return the money.

Frasure did not respond to a text message and voice message the Idaho Capital Sun left Wednesday and Thursday at the phone number she listed on her campaign finance reports.

Idaho School Boards Association deputy director and government affairs liaison Quinn Perry said she is not aware of any candidates who have asked the association for guidance on GoFundMe. She said her first call would be to McGrane for more information if candidates asked for advice.

Idahoans will vote in local school board elections Nov. 2.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.