The Supreme Court recently ruled that aggregate contribution limits to political candidates are unconstitutional. Although we are disappointed by this outcome, we will continue to push for real-time transparency of hard money contributions.

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Did almost 600 donors break campaign finance law in 2012?

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As many as 600 individuals appear to have exceeded the $117,000 that they were legally allowed to give directly to federal candidates, political parties and political committees in the last election cycle, records examined by the Sunlight Foundation suggest. But our most troubling finding may be just how difficult it is determine with legal certainty exactly how many campaign scofflaws there are, or how much over the limit they gave.

Like our former Sunlight colleagues, Paul Blumenthal and Aaron Bycoffe of the Huffington Post, we have been curious about the number of donors who appear to have exceeded campaign spending limits, in an era when the Supreme Court has made it possible for wealthy individuals to give in unlimited amounts via super PACs.

In addition to those who violated the overall limit for giving to federal campaigns, we identified as many as 1,478 individuals who may have given more than the legal limit of $70,800 to parties and committees and 507 who appear to have given more than the $46,200 legal aggregate limit to individual candidates.

These contribution levels speak directly to a case that the Supreme Court will hear this fall on whether these aggregate limits are even constitutional. In McCutchen v. Federal Election Commission, the plaintiffs have sued to declare the overall limit – now up to $123,000 for the 2013-2104 cycle – as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

One may wonder why donors would still contribute these hard money totals when they could make unlimited contributions to super PACs and “dark money” groups. But contributions to campaigns and parties still have their benefits. They are often the price of attendance at fundraisers, where a donor has the chance to talk directly with candidates and party leaders and raise their particular concerns. Contributions to Super PACs and dark money groups do not facilitate this same direct contact.

Additionally, given the FEC’s tradition of lax enforcement of individual aggregate limits, combined with minimal fines equal only to the size of the violation (though double in the case of a willful violation), it may not be so surprising that a number of wealthy individuals have not paid close detail to adding up their many campaign checks.

Caveats

In their analysis, Blumenthal and Bycoffe highlighted far fewer violators of campaign finance limits. That’s because they took a conservative approach to interpreting the data and only reported cases they went to the effort of verifying with time-intensive hand-checking. We think it's worth contrasting their findings to ours, not because we can draw any definitive conclusions but precisely because we can't. The fact is, campaign finance regulations have become so complex and difficult to interpret that it's almost impossible to follow them, much less enforce them.

Here are some of the problems we found:

Lack of unique identifier

The FEC does not provide unique identifiers for individual contributors. We instead rely on herculean matching efforts by the Center for Responsive Politics. Because individuals use multiple variations of their name in FEC records (for example, middle initials are particularly mercurial), it is difficult to be 100 percent certain.

However, the FEC’s lack of unique identifiers for individual donors is a telling insight into their lack of an enforcement strategy. While the agency says it welcomes complaints of violations, it appears to have no mechanism for detecting these violations itself. According to the most recent data on the FEC’s website, it dealt with 363 cases in 2009-2010, meting out $1.47 million in fines

Complex web of giving

Certain donations, such as those to recount campaigns, don't count against the legal aggregate limit and, as they are reported in the same format as other contributions, are difficult to sort out. To assess whether or not the money went to recounts requires a line-by-line reading of actual contribution filings, since this is not translated into the electronic data. It is possible that our number of violators would decline with this addendum. However, the total hard money contributions would remain the same.

Whether or not contributions went to recount funds or general election funds strikes us as an arbitrary distinction. If the limits are designed to limit corruption or the appearance of corruption, it is unclear to us why recount funds would be different from general election funds. Is someone who writes a check to help with a recount battle not buying ingratiation?

Poor record keeping

Our counts are only as good as campaign finance records filed by campaigns, and it is certainly possible that campaigns themselves made errors in recording contributions. Many contributions are also distributed through joint fundraising campaigns. We made every effort not to double-count those contributions, but it is possible that we made mistakes due to the quality of the underlying data. Often, refunds are difficult to track, and earmarked funds can be ambiguously reported (leading to the potential for accidental double-counting).

Still, many of the totals are far beyond even a reasonable margin of error. Eleven individuals gave more than $234,000 in aggregate, double the individual limits.

We've posted data on all of those who appear to have exceeded:

We welcome others who might wish to take a closer look at these individuals. We see much potential benefit in others looking more closely to see whether these individuals are, in fact, in violation of campaign finance laws or whether it just appears that they are due to inadequacies of the data.

However, regardless of whether or not these individuals did violate the law, we believe there is value in listing the major hard money donors in American politics. We also believe an equally important issue is the complexity of both the law and the resulting data, and the difficulties of proper counting and hence proper enforcement.

Patterns among the top hard money donors

Looking at the 595 individuals who appear to have exceeded the $117,000 limits as a group, we think it is worth highlighting a few patterns.

First, on partisanship. Of the 595 donors over the aggregate limits, 349 (58.6%) gave at least 80 percent of their contributions to Republican candidate or committees, while 194 (32.6%) gave at least 80 percent of their contributions to Democratic candidates or committees. The remaining 194 fall in between.

However, among the 100 individuals who gave the most overall (all of which appear to have given at least $163,000 total, well over the $117,000 limit), 74 gave predominantly to Republicans, as compared to just 18 giving predominantly to Democrats. Among the top 50, 40 were Republican donors, while just six were Democratic donors.

 

Occupations

Though individuals choose many creative ways to list their occupations, making definitive totals challenging, it’s worth noting the prevalence of high-level corporate individuals in these counts.  Of these over $117,00 donors, 108 (18.2%) identify themselves as some sort of “chairman”, while 68 identify themselves as CEO and 54 identify themselves as president. Another 34 identify themselves as executives, and 33 identify themselves as attorneys or lawyers.

Table 1. Most common occupations

Occupation Count Percent
Chairman 108 18.2%
Retired 100 16.8%
CEO 68 11.4%
President 54 9.1%
Investor/Investment 52 8.7%
Homemaker 39 6.6%
Executive 34 5.7%
Attorney/Lawyer 33 5.5%

Top Sectors

We can also say something about the sectors that these exceedingly generous donors represent. Of these over $117,000 donors, by far the highest number - 87 - come from the securities and investment sector, followed by 42 from real rstate. Many of the big donors also appear to be highly ideological – 14 are known to be affiliated with pro-Israel causes, and 13 are affiliated with Republican or Conservative causes.

Table 2. Most common sectors

Sector Count Percent
Securities & Investment 87 14.6%
Retired 70 11.8%
Real Estate 42 7.1%
Lawyers/Law Firms 28 4.7%
Oil & Gas 23 3.9%
Business Services 20 3.4%
Pro-Israel 14 2.4%
Republican/Conservative 13 2.2%
TV/Movies/Music 13 2.2%
Mining 12 2.0%

Top recipient candidates           

We can also ask which candidates depended the most on these 595 donors in the 2012 campaign. We note in doing so that these campaigns bear no responsibility if the donors go over the aggregate limits. Looking at the campaigns merely tells us which candidates rely most heavily on the top hard money donors.

For purposes of this analysis, we limited ourselves to candidates who raised at least $500,000 and competed at least in a primary.

The candidate with the highest share of money from these 595 donors was Rep. Doc Hastings , R-Wash., at 11.4% ($90,700 out of $793,855) followed by Rep. Tim Walberg, D-Mich,), at 9.9% ($76,649 out of $774,077).  The most well-known names on the list are House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.,at 8.7% ($100,083 out of $1,148,143 to her personal campaign), and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., at 6.3% ($318,950 out of $5,051,139). Of the top 20 candidates by percentage, 17 were Republicans

Table 3. Top 20 candidates with highest percentage of over-$117,000 donors

Candidate State/District Race Outcome Money from “over 117K donors” Itemized individual share from “over 117K donors”
Doc Hastings (R) WA-04 House W $90,700 11.4%
Tim Walberg (R) MI-07 House W $76,649 9.9%
Charlie Summers (R) ME Senate L $73,227 9.6%
Morgan Griffith (R) VA-09 House W $56,731 9.5%
Nancy Pelosi (D) CA-12 House W $100,083 8.7%
Denny Rehberg (R) MT Senate L $391,130 8.1%
Justin Amash (R) MI-03 House W $65,000 7.3%
Dean Heller (R) NV Senate W $282,206 7.2%
Peter Hoekstra (R) MI Senate L $237,364 7.0%
Justin Bernier (R) CT-05 House L $35,150 6.8%
Rick Berg (R) ND Senate L $252,862 6.6%
Bob Gibbs (R) OH-07 House W $39,900 6.5%
Jon Bruning (R) NE Senate L $141,120 6.5%
Dan Roberti (D) CT-05 House L $63,900 6.4%
Jeff Flake (R) AZ Senate W $318,950 6.3%
Bill Johnson (R) OH-06 House W $54,950 6.3%
Roger Wicker (R) MS Senate W $92,982 6.2%
Rob Zerban (D) WI House L $43,850 6.1%
John A. Barrasso (R) WY Senate W $131,820 6.0%
Linda Lingle (R) HI Senate L $247,350 6.0%

Looking at candidates by total amount (Table 4, below) gives us different list, one that generally corresponds to the most expensive campaigns, but is still strongly Republican (14 out of 20)

Not surprisingly, Romney tops the list, at $1,810,606 from the over-$117,000 donors, followed by Obama, at $976,407, with Boehner coming in third at $644,640.

Table 4. Top 20 candidates with most money from over-$117,000 donors

Candidate State/District Race Outcome Money from “over 117K donors” Itemized individual share from “over 117K donors”
Mitt Romney (R) President L $1,810,806 0.5%
Barack Obama (D) President W $976,407 0.3%
John Boehner (R) OH-08 House W $644,640 5.2%
Josh Mandel (R) OH Senate L $507,994 4.6%
Scott Brown (R) MA Senate L $459,959 2.6%
George Allen (R) VA Senate L $403,646 4.6%
Denny Rehberg (R) MT Senate L $391,130 8.1%
Elizabeth Warren (D) MA Senate W $337,348 1.9%
Ted Cruz (R) TX Senate W $330,893 3.8%
Jeff Flake (R) AZ Senate W $318,950 6.3%
Kirsten Gillibrand (D) NY Senate W $286,635 2.6%
Dean Heller (R) NV Senate W $282,206 7.2%
Claire McCaskill (D) MO Senate W $281,601 3.7%
Jon Tester (D) MT Senate W $275,535 4.1%
Tim Kaine (D) VA Senate W $264,700 2.4%
Richard E. Mourdock (R) IN Senate L $255,710 6.0%
Eric Cantor (R) VA-07 House W $253,964 5.6%
Rick Berg (R) ND Senate L $252,862 6.6%
Linda Lingle (R) HI Senate L $247,350 6.0%
Orrin G. Hatch (R) UT Senate W $240,033 5.3%

Conclusion

As we’ve noted, there are certain caveats here. Data quality limitations give us pause in asserting that anybody listed is in violation of the law. It also invites us to ask others to look more closely. Though the FEC does a poor job of discovering violations itself, it officially welcomes complaints.

However, legality aside, these totals do highlight just how aggressively a tiny select group of well-off donors approach the campaign finance system. For the median U.S. family, $117,000 is more than twice the annual family income of $52,762. But for these 595 select individuals, it the baseline price they are willing to contribute directly to their favored candidates and parties.

Special thanks to Brian Keller Richter, who tipped me off to widespread violations of individual aggregate contribution limits in an April conversation.

Corrections (6/4/2013): Our original list of individual donors who appeared to have exceeded individual campaign limits included the following individuals: Charles G. Koch, Kenneth Griffin, and Anne Griffin. Each of these individuals made one $30,800 contribution to the Republican National Committee's Recount Fund in 2011. Under FEC regulations, recount fund contributions do not count against biennial individual contribution limits. Therefore, we have removed these individuals from our original list. We also mistakenly included one contribution from Charles Chase Koch in the totals for Charles G. Koch. Charles Chase Koch is the son of Charles G. Koch.

We apologize for and regret the error. But we also note that because the FEC does not indicate whether contributions went to a recount in the bulk data, the time-cost of hand-verifying each individual record would have been so prohibitive as to prevent comprehensive analysis. We encourage other donors to help us crowd-source our data to make it as accurate as possible.