How Washington’s Elections Watchdog Became Completely Dysfunctional

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The United States has 50 different state electoral systems — more if one includes US territories and the District of Columbia — with disparate laws, different methods of counting the vote and very lax regulations on campaign financing. In some states, partisan officials oversee the process. Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University and an international elections monitor, has written that when judged by international standards the US would rank near the bottom of electoral democracies.

Making matters worse is that the nation’s elections watchdog, the Federal Election Commission, has been anything but aggressive in enforcing the relatively weak federal standards that we do have.

Today, the Center for Public Integrity’s Dave Levinthal published an important report looking at the roots of the agency’s dysfunction.

The report is the result of a six-month investigation by CPI that included “analysis of thousands of records and interviews with more than 50 current and former commissioners, staff members and associates.”

Some highlights:

  • The commission over the past year has reached a paralyzing all-time low in its ability to reach consensus, stalling action on dozens of rulemaking, audit and enforcement matters, some of which are years old.
  • Despite an explosion in political spending hastened by key Supreme Court decisions, the agency’s funding has remained flat for five years and staffing levels have fallen to a 15-year low.
  • Analysts charged with scouring disclosure reports to ensure candidates and political committees are complying with laws have a nearly quarter-million-page backlog. Commissioners themselves are grappling with nearly 270 unresolved enforcement cases.
  • Staff morale has plummeted as key employees have fled and others question whether their work remains relevant. Among top FEC jobs currently unfilled or filled on an “acting” basis: general counsel, associate general counsel for policy, associate general counsel for litigation, chief financial officer and accounting director. The staff director doubles as IT director.

As the nation heads into what will undoubtedly be the most expensive midterm election in history and a 2016 presidential election that, in no small way, has already begun, the FEC is rotting from the inside out.

Bitter ideological warfare among commissioners and congressional and White House indifference have yielded an agency less able to fulfill its stated mission: to “prevent corruption in the federal campaign process by administering, enforcing and formulating policy.”

Read the entire report, “How Washington Starves Its Election Watchdog,” at the Center for Public Integrity.

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