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New Federal Election Committee Web Site Is A Murky Mess. Is That On Purpose?

The Federal Election Committee, the appointed body that has the job of ensuring that America’s elections are conducted fairly and legally, just released a new version of its web site. In the past, the FEC web site has served as a quick and easy way to look at the documents filed by candidates for federal office and the political committees that spend money to impact their election.

What’s striking about the new version of the FEC web site is that it seems to offer less information, not more.

A “tour” of the new web site promises “Less looking, more finding. The main sections of our website have been reorganized and simplified to help you find what you need faster.” That’s not what I found at all.

Looking for information on independent expenditures, for example, required a search through several levels of pages with skimpy and unclear directions. When I arrived at the page that displays independent expenditures, the most recent reports on display were 19 days old. On the previous version of the web site, this information was available on the same day that it was filed. There’s a special congressional election going on in Montana. People there might want to know who the organizations are that are spending money to prop up the candidates, but it’s more difficult for them to find out, thanks to the new FEC web site.

Interactive data tables are wonky, with a smaller number of search options compared to what was present before. Data appears with some refined searches that isn’t available without that refinement. For example, if I search for “Gianforte” in the independent expenditure table, I can see independent expenditures that were made yesterday, though that information wasn’t available in the original independent expenditure table.

The new version of the site asserts that it provides users with “more precise controls”, but I find the interface to be confusing and clunky. After much searching, I still can’t find a way to get to a simple list of the candidates who are running for President in 2020. Neither the “candidate data” page nor the “filings and reports” page have any option for candidates who have filed to run for office in 2020, though I know for a fact that such candidates exist, because I saw them on the old FEC site, which is still available in archive form, but not completely functional.

At the old FEC web site, I used to be able to sort candidate filings according to political party. That option isn’t available anywhere anymore, as far as I can see. It isn’t even available as a variable in the OpenFEC API. As long as we have political parties in the United States, we need to be able to sort information about elections according to party. Simply having information about the activities of the centralized party committees isn’t enough.

My overall experience with the new FEC web site is that it seems designed to hinder, rather than facilitate, efforts to gain information about federal elections. The old FEC web site also had many problems, but the new one isn’t an improvement at all. Why would the FEC create a brand new version of its web site that’s so clunky?

One explanation is that the FEC is currently dominated by Republicans. It is made up of 3 Republican commissioners, 1 Democratic commissioner, 1 independent commissioner, and 1 empty seat. The Democratic Party is currently represented by 1 out 6 available positions at the FEC, while the Republicans on the commission can take any action they like, without even the chance for opposition.

Given that Republicans currently control both the White House and Congress, there’s little incentive for the Republican-controlled FEC to support efforts by citizens to gain information about the financial and organizational connections between candidates, committees, political parties and the businesses that prop them up. The more opaque campaign information becomes, the better it is for those people who are already in power.

Federal Election Commission 2017

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