FEC Data: A Map for Following the Money
By Elliott Hibbler
As the 2012 election cycle gets underway, the airwaves will be filled with advertisements supporting and criticizing various candidates and policies. As with other information, people need ways to evaluate the sources of these messages. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) provides the data and tools library users need to do just that. Using data collected by the FEC, it is possible to see from whom federal political candidates get their funding. Likewise, the same data can reveal the political preferences of groups with ambiguous names and even more ambiguous leadership. There is also historical data letting scholars assess the relationship between campaign finance, campaign success, and government action.
Before diving into FEC data, it is important to have a grasp of what types of entities the FEC regulates and what information it collects.
Elections require candidates, so of course the FEC gathers information about each candidate and his or her campaign. However, the candidate is not the entity actually receiving campaign contributions. The FEC requires candidates for federal office to authorize a “political committee” to accept donations. This committee must have a treasurer who signs filings to the commission and always appears as a named party in FEC investigations. The candidate can serve as treasurer, but, anecdotally, that seems rare. In their initial filings, committees must include the URL of their website and an email address.
Interestingly, the FEC covers all candidates for federal office—the president, Senate and House of Representatives—except for the vice president.
Political Action Committees (PACs)
The term “political action committee” is not very well-defined in election law or regulations. A PAC is a political committee similar to a candidate-authorized committee but independent of a campaign. There are two types of political committees which are generally considered PACs: committees formed by companies or unions, like the General Motors Company PAC, and political committees unaffiliated with a particular candidate, called nonconnected committees.
The Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee changed the rules for PACs. Before, PACs were limited in the independent expenditures they could make; now they are not. The details of those rules and the recent changes are beyond the scope of this article, but note that some of the donation figures in the FEC database have gotten quite large. Also, corporations and unions can now donate unlimited funds for some purposes. PACs organized to do this are called SuperPACs and can be identified by a letter that will be submitted along with the committee’s filings that says it is going to be raising unlimited funds. For an example, look at this letter for Restore Our Future, Inc.
An independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication advocating the election or defeat of a candidate where the spender is not coordinating the communication with the candidate (11 C.F.R. §100.16). Every individual or group has to report certain independent expenditures it makes at certain times before an election, depending on how much they spend in an election cycle. Political committees have to report these expenditures with their other regular periodic filings (11 C.F.R. §104.4). Groups and individuals who do not otherwise register with the FEC must also report expenditures if they total more than $250 per quarter. Within 20 days of an election, any person or group spending more than $1,000 a year on independent expenditures must file within 24 hours of the expenditure (11 C.F.R. §109.10(d)).
Other Entities: Political Organizations and Social Welfare Organizations
Entities that fall outside the FEC’s jurisdiction may attempt to influence an election though somewhat less directly than a PAC. A 501(c)(4) organization, whose name derives from the Internal Revenue Code, is an organization that promotes “social welfare,” a term that can include influencing elections, as long as no more than a certain amount of its budget goes toward those activities. Note that the contributors to 501(c)(4) organizations do not have to be publicly disclosed. However, some 501(c)(4) spending during a campaign will be disclosed as independent expenditures.
The other political organizations the FEC does not directly regulate are known as 527 political organizations, or 527s, also named for the section of the Internal Revenue Code that creates its tax exemption. Many FEC-regulated entities are 527s. However, there are also groups organized as political organizations that, though political, do not fit the exact requirements of being a political committee for the FEC. One can find some information about them in an IRS database, but like 501(c)(4)s, their only FEC filings are for independent expenditures. For more on 527 organizations, refer to Lauren Daniel’s 527s in a Post-Swift Boat Era: The Current and Future Role of Issue Advocacy Groups in Presidential Elections, 5 NORTHWESTERN JOURNAL OF LAW AND SOCIAL POLICY 149 (2010).
The Federal Election Commission generally defines an electioneering communication as a public communication, 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary, that refers to a clearly identified federal candidate (11 CFR 100.29). Individuals and groups making these communications must file notice with the FEC that they did so and also report how much they spent and which candidate they mentioned.
The FEC makes detailed campaign finance information available. There is information about everyone who gave more than $200 to any candidate or political committee dating back to the late 1990s. The information includes an address and an occupation if one was provided. For candidates, there are datasets for their committees’ receipts and their expenditures. The same information is available for political committees, including SuperPACs. Some of the most interesting current awareness information covers independent expenditures made by outside groups. For political committees, the FEC provides not only the committee’s financial information but scanned images of the actual filings, which include information like the committee’s contacts. The FEC allows a user to search its campaign finance information using the FEC website, or users can download much of the data in files in one of several formats.
The FEC Website
The FEC presents several search options only a couple of clicks into its website, providing a clear directory of different ways to search the data.
A researcher can search the FEC database by committee or candidate name. (Tip: If the FEC search box does not specify whether to use a candidate’s last name or first name, use a last name.) There are many fields where the user interface does not tell you to use “last name, first name” when it should. However, the FEC does a nice job of linking data between a candidate, the candidate’s committee, and the contributors to the committee, so using any of those as an entry point to the data will yield easy access to information on all of them. The only datasets siloed from the others are the digital images of filings, which you search for through a different interface; the independent expenditures, which though they support a candidate, do not link to the rest of that candidate’s information; and electioneering communications reports, which are only browseable on the FEC’s website.
Some candidates have run more than once for the same office. The FEC allows candidates to continue with the same committee, so in the instance of Mitt Romney, for example, his presidential donor list includes donations from the 2008 election cycle as well as the current one.
The FEC provides some data visualizing aids, mostly in the form of maps. The maps make it easier to see how candidates are doing at fundraising in particular areas. For presidential data, the United States map is broken down by three-digit zip code, which is not the most intuitive political boundary. The House and Senate races are shown by their respective districts and states, which makes looking at the data easier. This is also the fastest way to a candidate’s total contributions (including individual versus PAC contributions, disbursements, and cash-on-hand) and debt. This is all exportable to a database or spreadsheet program.
The FEC also allows for simple searching by donor. Note that it is illegal to use donor names for commercial purposes or soliciting contributions (11 C.F.R. §104.15). Also, the database returns individual donations, not an aggregate per donor, so if someone gives $200 five times, each of those will be listed separately. When searching through donors, the response time from the FEC website can get slow.
Downloading FEC Data
The FEC not only provides its own search tools, but it makes much of its data freely downloadable to the public. The datasets include summaries of contributions and expenditures of candidates and all political committees; independent expenditures by organizations; and even information on lobbyists’ campaign fundraising activity. The only files one cannot download in bulk are the datasets of the digital images of groups’ filings. However, for analyzing aggregate data for a candidate or committee, images are a poor choice, so not much is lost.
The available files are downloadable as CSV files that can be imported into databases or statistical programs. They can also go into Microsoft Excel, but be aware that some of the files are quite large and could be more than Microsoft Excel can handle well. Researchers can also download XML files, and the FEC includes a schema file. This can simplify the process for using the data in web applications.
The public can access a daily feed of electronic filings received by the FEC. These files are Excel-readable, but they require some manipulation using the documentation describing the “.fec” format they come in. Think of it as MARC for campaign finance documents.
The Center for Responsive Politics runs OpenSecrets.org, a website that presents the FEC data in more visual, helpful ways. One of its most beneficial analyses is to classify donations to a candidate by the business the donor was in. This allows one to see which industries support which candidates. The website also has tools to examine PAC spending, both for the current election cycle and trends over time.
The New York Times has a section on campaign finance in the “Elections” area of its website, but it only shows total fundraising. The New York Times does well with its data visualization in making it easy to compare candidates’ contributions over the course of an election. However, any campaign finance resource without PAC data, like The New York Times, cannot be considered complete.
Campaign finance rules and regulations seem to be in a perpetual state of flux. One of the few constants has been an attempt to increase transparency in federal election funding. The FEC is putting that philosophy into practice by making vast amounts of data available to scholars and the public alike.
Elliott Hibbler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is research/faculty services librarian at Western New England University School of Law Library in Springfield, Massachusetts.