Senate Candidate Clogs System with 26,000 Page Campaign Finance Filing, FEC Moves to Upgrade Tech

For better and especially for worse, the United States Senate knows how to hold onto the traditions of protocol. Mountains of minutia govern the legislative body, from the rules of debate to the election process itself. No where is this more obvious than in the Senate's refusal to give up paper-only filings to the Federal Election Commission. One only needs to check out the Washington Post's story on a Democratic candidate in Iowa for the sheer analog absurdity in our digital world:

The filing of Rep. Bruce Braley (D) alone, running for U.S. Senate in Iowa, is 26,000 pages long. The FEC takes each filing and sends it to a contractor, who types it in, character by character. The process can take weeks, if not months. Braley, meanwhile, goes before voters in 11 days.

To combat the silliness of the Senate, the FEC has awarded a one-year, $270,000 contract to Captricity, a California based company that says it can extract data from paper in as little as a few hours.

"We cheat," says Kuang Chen, Captricity's chief executive. "We use crowd-sourcing and machine-learning." The 26-employee company grew out of Chen's 2011 PhD thesis in computer science at the University of California at Berkeley.

Captricity works by "shredding" documents into small pieces, explains Chen. Those pieces are then uploaded to Mechanical Turk, Amazon.com's distributed workforce platform, where they're farmed out to people all over the planet.

Captricity most recently worked on the successful launch of the FDA's "openFDA" app. That new initiative from the Food and Drug Administration offers a searchable database of drug reactions, recalls and product labels — saving countless lives in the process.

It's imperative that a full disclosure of campaign finances be available to the public before heading to the polls to choose a candidate for election. Transparency is a fundamental pillar of democracy, one that's only increased in importance in a post-Citizens United world where corporations can hide their money behind cloak and dagger operations.

While Captricity won't be shining its crowd-sourced, learning-machine flashlight on Super PACs with this specific contract, the company's procedural patchwork is a step in the right direction. In an age where everything is digital, the only reason for the Senate to hold onto its paper is to hide behind it.

 

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Brandon Perkins
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