What if everyone, from the occasional door-to-door canvasser to the local agent – even your mother – could instantly collect political donations from a credit card using their mobile phone?
The technology has arrived to do it. It’s called Square, and the two leading US presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, have started using it.
Square is a device that allows anyone to accept credit and debit card payments using a smartphone. The idea was developed by Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter. He observed that 90 per cent of Americans use credit or debit cards, and also that there are plenty of small vendors who could use a low-cost way to collect payments from customers who don’t carry cash or cheques.
Think of the lady at the flower stall, a vendor at a farmers’ market, or the chap behind the table at the car boot sale.
Imagine a small piece of white, square plastic, about the size of your thumb, with a headphone jack sticking out of it. The Square device plugs into the audio jack of a smartphone, iPad or computer. To accept a payment, a user swipes a credit card through the device, and the card’s information is sent over the microphone connection.
The screen on the smartphone turns into a calculator, so the seller just punches in the amount of the sale, the customer signs the screen using their finger, and the payment is processed instantly. Customers are sent a receipt by text or email, including a little map of the GPS location where the card was charged (an anti-fraud check with added geek value). The entire transaction takes about 10 seconds.
Aside from being highly portable, it’s also inexpensive. The device itself is free, and Square charges 2.75 per cent plus 15 cents for each transaction. By way of comparison, established online payment service PayPal is 2.9 per cent plus 30 cents for transactions under $3,000.
The possibilities of using Square for political fundraising set the political world abuzz during the last election cycle, but until now, only a handful of politicians have tried it. Missouri Congressional candidate Tommy Sowers hosted an event in Washington in 2010 that featured Square, and it also made debuts during the last campaign cycle at a California state assembly campaign fundraiser and a New York Congressional fundraiser. Non-profits have also started using it.
Still, collecting political donations in the United States, and in the UK, is more involved than simply swiping a credit card or cashing a cheque. In the US, to comply with Federal Election Commission reporting requirements, campaigns need to collect a number of details from donors, including their full name, address, employer and occupation. Square was not designed to collect this type of information. However, the company released its API (programming information) to allow fundraisers to build applications on top of Square, so political campaigns can collect all the necessary data on the spot. Until now, few candidates have had the resources to develop the special app needed, but with the big money involved in this presidential race, both the Obama and Romney campaigns went for it.
The Obama campaign has already distributed Square to its campaign offices throughout the country, equipping staff, field organisers and volunteers with the device. It eventually wants to make the Obama Square application available to everyone within the App Store, so that any campaign supporter can download the app, get Square and collect donations.
Romney also developed an app to make use of Square. He first tested it during the Florida primary and was optimistic about rolling it out to the rest of the country.
It’s a quick win for campaigns because it reduces some of the barriers to donating. Many people don’t have a chequebook or cash handy at events or on the doorstep, but most have a credit card. Imagine a mass of volunteers circulating at a rally and collecting hundreds of donations, or canvassers asking every supporter for money on the doorstep.
It would enable more people to get involved in soliciting and collecting funds for political causes, which could further democratise the fundraising process. It could also tap new sources of donations. For example, neighbours and friends who aren’t politically active but would give because a friend asked. Plus, it could effectively eliminate the need for paper from the donation process entirely.
Asking someone face-to-face for a donation increases the chances they will say ‘yes’, and without the excuse of not having their chequebook to hand, the likelihood of closing the deal is much higher.
For the moment, though, Square’s use on the campaign trail is still in its infancy. Until it builds a critical mass, it’s hard to predict what its impact could be for political fundraising, but this presidential race will be a significant pilot. Online donating during the last presidential campaign revolutionised political fundraising. This could be the next big thing.
Now that the political apps for Square have been designed, perhaps for future elections the main political parties could find a cost-effective way to make it freely available to candidates who might otherwise not be able to afford the development costs of an app. Either that, or the company producing Square might see rolling out a device tailored for the political world as a lucrative opportunity. Or it might sell the app directly to campaigns.
In that event, by the next campaign cycle any clever candidate could recognise they had nothing to lose by trying it. If it’s a great success during the US presidential campaign, UK politicians would be wise to jump on board early, especially given the high percentage of people here who own smartphones. Perhaps that’s an investment the UK political parties should consider making on behalf of their candidates.
By the next UK general election, a candidate could possibly arm every volunteer with Square, and ask them to make a quick pitch before the door closes in their face. Or they could distribute Square to volunteers and supporters and give them fundraising targets for tapping friends. The novelty value plus the personal ask makes it likely that voters will donate.
Just as web 2.0 continues to find ways to mobilise people who were previously uninvolved in political activism, Square offers an additional avenue for those activists to make an impact. It’s more evidence of the exciting ways that technology is transforming democracy.
Could Square be to political fundraising what PayPal is to eBay? Only time will tell. Either way, Square’s possibilities are promising, and that’s not bad for a small piece of plastic.