“Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of a quorum at the FEC was keeping it from taking swift action on any complaints,” said one expert.
As the COVID-19 pandemic collides with election season, the agency responsible for enforcing the nation’s campaign finance laws is altering the way it does business to heed public health guidance.
The Federal Election Commission released a report last week detailing the status of its operations during coronavirus. The agency has lacked quorum since September and, thus, the ability to perform the majority of its enforcement functions, but staff can still maintain the campaign finance database, answer campaigns’ questions and provide technology support on the online filing system, and analysts can review reports.
“While most agency operations are unaffected, the agency will be receiving, but not processing mail due to the implementation of maximum telework flexibilities. This disruption will affect all documents submitted on paper, including non-electronically filed reports, advisory opinion requests, enforcement complaints, and court-case documents,” said the report. “FEC staff have access to phone and email. The FEC’s website, web-based programs, and electronic filing systems are all still online.”
The commission said 94% of campaign finance reports are filed electronically and electronic filing is required for filers who receive or expend contributions over $50,000 in a calendar year. The report noted that: “The FEC does not have statutory authority to extend filing deadlines, but it may choose not to pursue administrative fines against filers prevented from filing by reasonably unforeseen circumstances beyond their control.”
For enforcement complaints with allegations of campaign finance regulations, which are required to be filed in writing, the FEC is asking individuals and organizations to send an electronic copy, in addition to mailing the written complaints, to firstname.lastname@example.org using electronic signatures and notarizations. “Electronically submitted copies of complaints that otherwise appear to be in order will be deemed received on the date the copy was electronically received by staff,” said the report.
The report also includes various email addresses to various FEC offices to handle legal considerations, ligation documents, inspector general inquiries and other enforcement matters in lieu of the mail.
The FEC also updated reporting deadlines for several states that postponed their primaries to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“With its new operations procedures, the FEC is trying to rise to the challenge of working remotely amid the coronavirus pandemic while providing transparency about money flowing into our elections and serving as a resource for candidates and politically active groups,” said Michael Beckel, research director at Issue One, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics. However, “even before the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of a quorum at the FEC was keeping it from taking swift action on any complaints or advisory opinion requests.”
Separately, Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub has been pushing to expand vote-by-mail options to ensure social distancing while conducting elections. “No one knows what the coronavirus situation will be when America votes this November,” she said in a statement on March 19. “The U.S. government has the duty to prepare for the worst.” House and Senate Democrats hope to secure funding to expand mail-in voting in the “phase three” coronavirus legislation currently being worked out by lawmakers. The Brennan Center for Justice estimated last week that a nationwide vote-by-mail system could cost between $982 million and $1.4 billion.
Meanwhile, FEC Chair Republican Caroline Hunter said, “the Federal Election Commission has absolutely no jurisdiction over election administration, including whether states permit vote-by-mail,” in a statement on March 20. “The commission is charged with the administration, enforcement, and formulation of policy with respect to the Federal Election Campaign Act, the presidential election campaign fund, and the presidential primary matching account.”
Independent Commissioner Steven Walther has not commented on the matter.