OpenGov Voices: How the FEC is making it easier to follow the money

Ann Ravel, chair of the FEC

Recently, I publicly expressed my concerns about the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) ability to fulfill one of its central responsibilities – enforcing federal campaign finance laws. Despite repeated deadlocks on significant enforcement matters, I am not giving up on furthering the cause of fair and transparent elections. It is crucial to me that, during my tenure as FEC chair, information about how campaigns are financed is truly transparent. To be transparent, it must be easily accessible to the public.

The FEC was established to ensure public trust in the political process. So, we must make sure that we provide the public not only with the information necessary to make decisions when voting, but also with a consequential ability to participate in the commission’s work.

When I became chair, I made the commitment that the FEC would be less insular in our processes, provide greater transparency and find ways for public involvement in the significant issues that the agency oversees. To identify ways to increase accessibility, I asked the commission staff to provide information about what they already do to involve stakeholders and the public, as well as think about how we, as a public agency, can enhance our public outreach. The Offices of the General Counsel and the Staff Director prepared a thoughtful and thorough report to that end. Many of their recommendations could be easily implemented and would provide an immediate benefit to the public. A few examples are to:

  • Permit the public and more stakeholders an opportunity to weigh in on advisory opinions at FEC meetings;
  • set up an online FOIA reading room to make all information provided through the Freedom of Information Act available to the public; and
  • promulgate a new procedural rule to provide for more documents to be made public.

These are just the beginning steps we can take to be a more inclusive agency and provide meaningful ways for people to learn, deliberate and affect policy decisions at the commission.

With all the money set to pour into the 2016 elections, it’s more important than ever for the FEC to improve the way it provides campaign finance data. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Toward that goal, in February, I convened a public hearing at the FEC to listen to the public’s thoughts about the state of campaign finance in this country and to discuss rulemaking in a post-McCutcheon v. FEC era. What made that commission meeting unique was the breadth of its participants. Rather than just hearing from election lawyers and representatives of political parties — who are in frequent contact with the commission — we heard from citizens, political practitioners, academics, students and nonprofit advocates from across the political spectrum. In addition to the significant and helpful witness testimony, more than 32,000 written comments were received.

voting sign
A sign directs voters to the polls. (Photo credit: Keith Ivey/Flickr)

Additionally, while the FEC already provides a valuable service by enabling voters to determine sources of campaign funding, we can and should do more. The FEC receives, processes and makes public an incredible amount of important campaign finance data on the FEC website. Approximately 30 million financial transactions are reported to the FEC each year. But, those transactions are not always easy to find, use and understand.

Most voters interested in who is funding a particular campaign don’t have the time to do a thorough search or sift through the voluminous records that the FEC provides. And even if that voter is inclined to “follow the money,” it can be very difficult to navigate the data on our existing website to find the information most pertinent to each individual and the races impacting a particular local community. But, we are changing all of that.

The FEC is now updating our website to be more nimble, navigable and to provide more customizable information. Our staff has worked with many interested persons and groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, to improve the way we provide campaign finance data. This website redesign is user-driven and will have user-centered design, allowing voters to utilize a simpler search function, easy-to-operate filters and clearer data summaries.

Because of our obligation as a disclosure agency, the FEC must provide the public with unsurpassed access to campaign finance information, which we do in a neutral and unvarnished way. The updated website is being built with an application programming interface (API), so that the media academics and tech-savvy members of the public can share FEC data among systems. This will allow anyone to build a web application, drawing directly from our data, and display campaign finance data on their own websites.

The FEC is a vitally important agency – even more so in the face of the impending explosion of campaign finance activity in the 2016 presidential election. A new website and new tools for public engagement are a few important steps towards ensuring fair and transparent elections. To be truly effective, we need to couple these efforts with timely and effective enforcement and with a renewed commitment to transparency. I am dedicated to continuing to move forward on both fronts: to better serve our stakeholders and the public.

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