Madison Ald. Mark Clear, a Democrat running for an open Assembly seat on the city's west side, must have felt vindicated when the Federal Election Commission deemed bitcoins, the increasingly popular online currency, acceptable for political contributions.
Clear, a proud technologist who heads a nonprofit devoted to furthering the Madison tech economy, had only recently returned a bitcoin contribution he had received (and proudly promoted on Facebook) after being instructed by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board that the online crypto-currency was not authorized for contributions to state candidates.
On Wednesday, Clear attended a meeting of the GAB to present his arguments in favor of adopting the FEC's rule.
"If bitcoin is good enough for federal candidates, it ought to be good enough for Wisconsin candidates," he said Thursday. "I’m hoping they’ll roughly follow the guidelines that the FEC declared."
Similar to the FEC's decision, Clear suggests the state adopt a strict limit on the amount one can give with bitcoins. He suggested $50, which is the same limit currently set for cash contributions.
He also said candidates who receive bitcoins should be required to convert them into dollars as soon as possible. That reduces the chance of the value of the contribution changing dramatically.
One bitcoin is currently worth just over $525.
"You could drive yourself crazy with arguments about what is the actual value of something," Clear conceded, "but at some point you have to have a reference and U.S. dollars are as good a reference as any."
But why would anybody prefer to donate with bitcoins? What's the advantage?
"It’s a very easy and convenient transaction method. You don’t need a plastic card or a paper check or a 16-digit number," he said. "The other advantage is the transaction costs are lower compared to credit cards. It doesn’t benefit the candidate and the donor doesn’t get the full value of their contribution when you do a credit card contribution."
GAB is not certain to issue an opinion on bitcoins anytime soon. The topic wasn't even on the agenda when Clear addressed the meeting Wednesday. However, he hopes the board acts quickly to fall in line with federal campaign standards.