Federal Election Commission Shows How To Disclose Data In A Digital Democracy

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security showed how to deploy government technology poorly. Now, the Federal Election Commission is showing how to do it right, with the help of 18F, the federal government's software development shop. The FEC on Wednesday rolled out its first-ever application programming interface for software developers to access its campaign finance data.  

The API makes it much easier to search through the FEC's campaign finance database. Users can get data for any parameters they specify, as opposed to downloading all of the commission's data and running queries on it.

"Today marks the launch of the FEC’s first API. With that API, searching for candidates and committees will be easier and more interactive," Lindsay Young, an innovation specialist at 18F, wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "With that API, searching for candidates and committees will be easier and more interactive. Information is organized around concepts like candidates, which are more welcoming than navigating buckets of information based on forms."

If you're a developer, the Sunlight Foundation's Bob Lannon has explained everything you need to know about how to get started with the FEC API, in addition to providing useful context for the project:

With the help of a team of intrepid 18F developers, the FEC is rethinking both its website and its data offerings to better serve its mission of educating the public with real-time disclosure of campaign finance information. It's part of the larger OpenFEC project, and we think it's a very encouraging sign that this collaboration is going to improve access to a crucial information resource.   

The improved ability to share campaign finance data with the public lines up perfectly with the FEC's mission. Young wrote in her post that the FEC "empowers citizens with the information they need to make informed decisions about their democracy."

Since opening its doors in the ‘70s," she added, "the FEC has evolved to better serve the public with that information."

After the Supreme Court struck down overall limits on campaign contributions last year, digital disclosures have taken on even greater importance to democracy. In McCutcheon v. FEC, Chief Justice John Roberts specifically cited the role of such third parties in informing voters.

"With modern technology, disclosure now offers a particularly effective means of arming the voting public with information. … Today, given the Internet, disclosure offers much more robust protections against corruption," he said. 

"Reports and databases are available on the FEC’s Web site almost immediately after they are filed, supplemented by private entities such as and," Roberts continued.

Still, standing up an API to more effectively disclose data does not in any way heal the toxic gridlock that ails the nation's campaign watchdog. The FEC continues to be, as Dana Milbank wrote last year, "a poster child for a broken Washington." FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel told The New York Times in May that the regulator can't curb election abuse in the 2016 campaign, due to deep partisan deadlock.

That doesn't mean that this isn't positive news. Perhaps just as notably, there's an important model here. By making open data generated from candidates' disclosure forms more accessible to the public, the FEC is showing, not telling, other government regulators how to do this well.

Rather than deploying a shoddy app that makes it more difficult to exercise the core right to access information, as DHS has, the FEC is publishing structured data online so that others -- from the Sunlight Foundation to every data journalist in the country -- can build better apps. 

In a digital democracy, what the U.S. government needs is better infrastructure to receive, process and manage citizens' requests for information. If President Barack Obama wants to shore up his legacy on open government, perhaps the White House could convene 18F, the U.S. Digital Service and the Justice Department and build a read/write FOIA API for America. It's sure to be easier than putting a man on Mars.