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Guest opinion

Chan: Political campaigns underway in Az; Ways to vet donation requests & follow your money

Amy B. Chan is the chairwoman of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

If you've got email, chances are you've been asked to "chip in" to support candidates from school board to senator and to back nonprofits of all shapes and sizes.

And while consumers have some protections from fraud and other malfeasance, a decade of legislative and judicial decisions have turned the campaign cash grab into the wild West.

The bipartisan commitment to "free speech" in the form of free-flowing dough has left fundraisers and spenders in the driver's seat with precious little protection for donors and voters. For example, most nonprofits doing business in Arizona need not register with the state before soliciting you for your dollar.

Meanwhile, The New York Times chronicled how unscrupulous online fundraising by politicians and their enablers led many voters to contribute far more than they intended. Donors were able to get refunds – to the tune of $122.7 million from one presidential campaign – while complaints about such practices constituted 1-3 percent of consumer complaints to banks.

In this deregulated landscape, donors should bear in mind a few key principles in determining what and whether to give.

Make sure you are only giving what you intend. Many solicitations indicate upfront if the ask is for an ongoing donation, but others do not. If you find a solicitation unclear or it's difficult to determine the terms of your donation, better to put your credit card away. Never let yourself be pressured. Do not give organizations direct access to your bank account — better to give by credit card or check.

Likewise, many so-called nonprofit organizations' donations are not tax deductible. Still others solicit on behalf of one or more related entities, one of which is not tax deductible, while the other is. This is a common occurrence among similarly named 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s. Make sure you know which one you intend to receive your donation. Donations to 501(c)(3)s are typically tax deductible. Donations to 501(c)(4)s are not.

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Finally, know how your money is being put to use. Candidates who run using traditional private fundraising face little scrutiny of how they spend their money short of a formal complaint. Consequently, reviewing campaign finance reports may in some cases be the only way to determine if your donations are being used wisely.

Nonprofits need not provide anywhere close to the detail candidates must disclose. Consequently, ensuring your money is going to support the cause is harder to determine. You can consult a reputable online tracker of charitable giving to determine if you are making a wise investment.

Finally, donors should use good security practices with their personal and financial information, do their research and follow the recommendations of trusted sources like the Federal Trade Commission

Political campaigns are exciting and the ability of small donors to make an impact is important. But where there is cash, you'll often find crooks. Make sure you have educated yourself on candidates and organizations before you part with your hard-earned money. Keep track of important election dates and get nonpartisan information at AzCleanElections.gov.

Amy B. Chan is the chairwoman of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission. The Republican was appointed by then Senate Democratic Leader Katie Hobbs, and is a former state election director in the Secretary of State’s Office.

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