Your Submission Is Accepted: FEC’s Digital Gatekeeper Bars Few

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has recently enlisted the help of an outside agency, the General Services Administration and its elite squad of civic techies called 18F, to overhaul its website and push the boundaries of open disclosure to new heights.

While the notion of a government agency tweaking its internal workings may not seem like a big deal, the computer system at the FEC holds a unique role in the electoral process: It determines whether accurate information is available to the public immediately, or with a sometimes sizable delay.

The capabilities of government computer systems can determine the effectiveness of the agencies to which they are attached. Think of HealthCare.gov or the scheduling system for doctor appointments at the Veterans Administration. The FEC’s system is no different, but in some areas the commission’s interest in enforcing the law and the public’s interest in understanding who funds our elections aren’t always in sync.

An investigation by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation into one of these areas, the e-filing system, reveals one of the roots of the divergence.

By the FEC's own account, it has been able to make the information on disclosure forms available to the public within 48 hours no less than 100 percent of the time in each of the last five years. By comparison, in every one of those five years the agency has missed its own goal of making the audited versions of the same reports available within 30 days, it has achieved the goal for 85 percent of reports.

There’s a reason the feds can make their 48-hour goal every time: They don’t have to do a thing. The filings are simply made public as they were filled out, which is by way of a simple verification system like we’ve all encountered in online web forms.

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