About a century ago, Louis Brandeis – before taking a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court – gave his oft-quoted recipe for transparency: “Sunlight is said to the best of disinfectants.” Regulation of campaign finance taps into that principle when it mandates disclosure – reporting – to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Political committees – like parties, candidates and PACs – have to detail receipts and disbursements in regular reports filed with the FEC, a provision of the regulatory framework that policy makers seem to have gotten right. The data generated, analyzed by legions of scholars, are key for tracking the influence of money in politics. The picture that emerges for those traditional political players may not be pretty, but at least it’s a picture.
Newly active “dark money” organizations, backed by deep pockets, evade FEC disclosure requirements. Hence, the “dark” tag. But disclosure may even be a little shaky for the old-school organizations that report to the FEC. Research by Grinnell College juniors Becca Heller and Emma Lange reveals that the sun may not shine as brightly as it should.
Becca’s and Emma’s Fall 2014 Mentored Advanced Project research examined the Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. Like others, they were intrigued by the impact of the abolition of aggregate contribution limits, which had been in place for decades. Though the jury is still out on McCutcheon’s impact, Becca and Emma identified some data quality issues in the course of their research. They can tell you the rest.
We noticed several irregularities, some possibly due to human error in data entry. Whether the donor, the committee or the FEC were responsible, there were a variety of typos, misspellings and variations in names and occupations in the records. This is more problematic than it might seem, since compiling an individual donor’s history requires matching information. These minor errors also make us wonder whether there are inaccuracies in stated donations amounts.
To get a donor’s history, we relied on the donor look-up function of the FEC website. Beyond those typo-related issues, we saw other lapses in reporting. For example, many donors who gave at the $2,600 maximum in the Iowa US Senate contest did not show up in the donor look-up, while their records were included in the campaign’s own disclosure reports.
Occasionally we also saw evidence of apparent illegal donations to candidates, going beyond the $2,600 limit. In time these dollars might be returned to the donor, with a FEC paper trail documenting it. But while we were looking, the data suggested that some donors had given beyond the legal limit.
In one case – an important one for our research – we couldn’t get to the necessary data because of FEC time lags. Data updates for many committees happen quickly, almost instantaneous upon submission, with one notable exception: reports from Senate campaigns, which are exempt from mandatory electronic disclosure. No, it doesn’t make sense, and the most recent correction attempt never made it out of committee. But it means that updated data are not always available in a timely fashion.
We didn’t run into the senate campaign data problem, since the candidates we focused on filed electronically. However, we did have a time-lag problem with Joint Fundraising Committees (JFCs), a rather obscure fundraising vehicle, but one hypothesized to become more important in the post-McCutcheon era. The JFC data were not available after the November election, and the FEC – when we inquired on the phone – said that it couldn’t even project how long it would take to process the large volume of 2014 JFC reports.
These various campaign finance data problems surprised us. Academics and journalists fail to mention irregularities, though possibly they only emerge when looking at the granular level, as our research did. Maybe there’s an implicit judgment that the problem is minimal, especially against the backdrop of millions of data points. Or maybe everyone just acknowledges that collecting data is a human enterprise, subject to error.
The political significance of these data problems could cut either way. A disclosure system without sufficient transparency might be lacking as a disinfectant. Yet possibly the threat of transparency – as opposed to the reality of it – is the important factor for democracy.