Election Transparency Threatened by Lack of Resources for Key Agency

Impeded by a lack of resources, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has been slow to publicly release recent campaign finance disclosures. The FEC is the independent agency charged with enforcing federal election laws and making campaign finance information available to the American people. This information is vital, particularly in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that gutted our campaign finance laws, and significant delays in releasing such data are of serious concern to the health of our democracy.

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.

These delays are the result of a more systemic problem: FEC resources have failed to keep pace with the political activity it is charged with overseeing. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, when adjusted for inflation, the FEC's estimated funding is the same as it was in 2003, and the commission has lost almost 50 staff members over the past seven years.

Meanwhile, spending on federal elections has skyrocketed. According to the Center for Public Integrity, between the 2005-2006 and 2010-2011 cycles, spending in a given federal election cycle rose from $2.85 billion to $6.3 billion, an increase of 120 percent. The 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential elections are expected to shatter political spending records.

Because of its resource constraints, the FEC has struggled to keep pace with the record number of political transactions it must process – 23 million in 2012 alone. The result is a major backlog in disclosure reports still awaiting review and release and a spike in the number of new reports requiring more than 30 days to process.

In addition to inadequate funding, the FEC faces three significant challenges:

  • 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 in 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.

In the absence of reasonable limits on campaign contributions, it is critical that voters know who is funding campaigns and attempting to influence their votes. As the agency responsible for providing timely, accurate campaign finance information to all Americans, the FEC must have the resources it needs to operate effectively. The continued push in the Senate to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would further expand the disclosure mandate of the FEC to include campaign-related expenditures by 501(c) nonprofit organizations and 527 political groups, further underscores the need to empower the FEC to effectively carry out its core objectives.

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