Nothing to FEC Here: Backlogged Agency Threatens Election Transparency in Post Citizens United Era

The uncapping of campaign finance laws that stemmed from 2010's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission SCOTUS decision was immediately heralded as an erosion of democratic ideals. Corporations now had a "voice," exercised by truckloads of money dumped in lawmakers' backyards, and Super PACs sprung up exponentially to increase the volume of America's unending election cycle. All of this talking — read money exchanging — has now created a bureaucratic bottleneck of unintended consequences:

On May 21, the Center for Responsive Politics downloaded all FEC files for 2014 House candidates, which had to be submitted by April 15. The group was surprised to discover that information for 347 of the 703 active House candidates from the first quarter of the year was missing. When the center followed up with the FEC regarding the missing data, the group was told that the agency simply had not finished processing the filings.

That's a few decimal points from being exactly half of the candidates who filed paperwork that are missing data and thus, analysis. The responsibility falls on the Federal Election Commission, the same FEC sued by Citizens United to open up this can of worms in the first place. However, the FEC's funding stands exactly where it was at in 2003 — adjusted for inflation, according to the Center for Public Integrity — when there were far fewer political voices to track. From 2006 to 2010, political spending jumped 120 percent, from $2.85 billion to $6.3 billion. And the rain is only falling harder in 2014, and forecasted to be a flood of Biblical proportions in 2016's presidential election.

The FEC is overwhelmed and underprepared. The agency was responsible for processing 23 million transactions in 2012 with three significant challenges impeding its mission:

    •    Paper Filings – The FEC has requested that Senate candidates file their reports electronically, which would reduce filing and processing costs and drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to integrate these reports into the FEC's searchable databases. This could help get campaign finance information out to Americans far more quickly. Currently, because Senate candidates file with the Secretary of the Senate, mandatory electronic filing provisions do not apply to them.
    •    Outdated IT – The commission's IT system is out of date. Simple things like searching for campaign vendors can be difficult, if not impossible. More alarmingly, the FEC has failed to update its IT security despite warnings from external audits that its outdated software and inadequate system patches made their systems vulnerable to cyber-attacks. System breaches could erase or corrupt large amounts of data from the agency's system, causing even further delays in releasing crucial campaign finance information to the American people.
    •    Error Correction – Currently, FEC staff are expected to review data for errors and make corrections. But the entire onus should not be on the agency to clean up errors and omissions in the reports they receive. Instead, campaigns and committees need to take responsibility for the accuracy and completeness of their data as they prepare their filings, lessening the burden on the FEC

Journalists, public activists and concerned citizens need to have access to this information. It's a vital part of democracy that these mountains of money — which arguably don't belong there in the first place — be tied to the policy-makers collecting them before Americans head to the polls. This is part of the responsible, informed decision-making necessary for a healthy democracy. In turn, the FEC needs to be able to process these transactions in a timely fashion and allow complete transparency in the public's ability to search for it.

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Brandon Perkins
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