According to Federal Election Commission regulations, during the last 19 days before an election, independent expenditures to influence congressional elections must be reported to the FEC within 24 hours. This is true for any person or group shelling out more than $1000 for independent expenditures in an election cycle, a condition met by virtually all independent expenditure groups in this big-spending election.
The regulation is not a mere technicality; it especially matters this year because so much money was been laid down so quickly, so close to Election Day. Timely reports allow reporters and inquisitive citizens to dig up details about the groups behind blistering last-minute attack ads as they appear. When disclosures to the FEC are delayed, information about the corporations that fund these ads is obscured until the ads themselves are long gone, have had their effect on a campaign, and have been replaced by new waves of advertising. If disclosures to the FEC are delayed long enough, then expenditures made in the last weeks of a campaign can be hushed up until the election is entirely over and it is too late for information about the the funders of these attack ads to make any difference.
The frequency distribution below, based on FEC independent expenditure reports released through this morning, shows how many days lapsed between the use of independent expenditures to influence elections and the reporting of those independent expenditures to the FEC during the 19-day period before Election Day, October 14 to November 1 2010:
Out of a total of 11,730 new independent expenditure reports made to influence congressional elections between October 14 and November 1 2010, 691 of them were reported to the FEC after the mandated 24-hour window. Even if we grant an additional 24-hour grace period, 352 independent expenditure reports remain non-compliant.
It’s important to keep in mind that these results are biased to underreport problems in two ways. First, only initial reports of independent expenditures are included. Thousands of amended reports regarding independent expenditures have replaced initial reports in the FEC’s public database; these are not included in the tally because the indicated date of receipt applies to the amended report, not the initial report. A significant number of amended reports may be replacing initial reports that were filed on a tardy basis. Second, independent expenditures made in the last week of the campaign that are being reported late to the FEC are not yet reflected in the available data — precisely because they’re late. The above figures, far from exaggerating the problem of non-compliant independent expenditures, are rather an understatement.