The Federal Elections Commission invites you to tell it how to make campaign contribution data more transparent—by January 15. As the Sacramento Bee pointed out in a recent editorial,
The six-member Federal Election Commission is asking the public to comment about rules governing whether voters can know which interests are spending how much to win over their votes. The Commission long has been one of the more dysfunctional agencies in Washington. It splits 3-3 on virtually all issues of any significance related to campaign disclosure. But in a moment of clarity in October, the commission agreed to ask the public to weigh in on the most pressing issue before it: campaign finance disclosure.
Three of the Commissioners, including Ann Ravel, recent chair of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, are traveling the country to stir up awareness of and interest in this rare opportunity. In a statement released to encourage participation, they said:
We think it is essential to hear from anyone who cares about money in politics – especially citizens and campaign volunteers who have an equal stake in making our democracy work. We know there is growing public concern about the deluge of undisclosed spending to sway our votes. We share this concern. …Outside spending by groups that hide their donors increased from just $5 million 2006 to more than $300 million in 2012. Given this dramatic increase, the commission should consider based on public comments and testimony how to strengthen its disclosure rules so that voters know who is behind the messages intended to influence their votes.
Two problems for the vast majority of citizens who want to be heard but are newcomers to the process: knowing what suggestions to make, and where to make them.
As for problem one, some experienced advocates of greater sunshine have already offered some ideas that anyone can refer to and support with a ditto statement. For instance, federal regulation-watchers Jennifer A. Heerwig and Katherine Shaw note in a recent blog:
What should be done? Three simple solutions—each of which the FEC could implement without congressional action—would significantly improve the quality of campaign finance disclosure data.
First, standardize disclosure forms. At present, the FEC advises candidates and committees to collect basic disclosure information, but it does not provide these entities with a standardized way to collect that information. A standardized form—like the ones used by other federal agencies to collect basic socio-demographic information—would greatly improve the quality of disclosure data and potentially reduce the burden of disclosure for campaign managers. For instance, the FEC’s disclosure form could model its question on occupation/employer after the United States Census Bureau’s long form questionnaire. On the long form questionnaire, respondents are asked to select their industry from a pre-defined list and then are prompted to describe their main employment duties. The nested structure of the Census Bureau’s question allows government employees, researchers, and others to accurately categorize the workforce of the American population.
Second, itemize by individual donors rather than by individual contributions. Provide donors with a unique donor identification number so that journalists, researchers, and the engaged electorate can identify the biggest and most consistent donors to federal elections. This unique donor identification number could potentially be released with wholly or partially de-identified FEC data. In other words, other identifying information like full names could be stripped from the files before being publicly released, thus mitigating concerns about privacy.
Third, release basic information about who finances American elections in an easy-to-comprehend format. If campaign finance disclosure is to serve as an “effective means of arming the voting public with information,” it must be released in a format that the engaged electorate can quickly comprehend and potentially use to inform vote choice. At present, the bulk of the FEC’s disclosure data is contained in large-scale databases that are available for download on its website. But a more effective disclosure regime would allow voters to interactively explore the contours of political influence in American elections by, for example, showing voters how much their House representative received from big dollar contributors and what industries these contributors represent.
Taken together, these small and simple recommendations—along with still other actions we have recommended—could go a long way toward arming the electorate with the sort of effective disclosure information that the Roberts Court envisions. In a post-McCutcheon landscape, an accurate, well-maintained, and accessible database of donors could be the public’s last viable hope for regulating political money.
Other information on the current shortcomings of the FEC’s campaign finance disclosure requirements is found in a recent analysis on the Sunlight Foundation’s website.
As for where to post your comments, the three-step online process begins here. And when you get to step 3, Comments, just answer as you see fit the Commission’s question concerning “what regulatory changes or other steps it should take to further improve its collection and presentation of campaign finance data.”