The unprecedented lengths of some U.S. Senate candidates’ quarterly reports to the Federal Election Commission are preventing the commission from making campaign finance data publicly available, it said this week.
The delays are obscuring key data about financial support for candidates in hotly contested races that could determine which party controls the Senate, less than two weeks before voters go to the polls.
Filings by some Democrats running in competitive races are unprecedented in their length, leading some Republicans to allege that their campaigns are trying to prevent scrutiny of their finances during the home stretch of the midterm elections.
"Unusually large paper reports filed by U.S. Senate candidates in the third quarter of the current cycle have overwhelmed our processing capacity, slowing public disclosure of those reports," the commission wrote on its website on Thursday.
"Total page numbers far exceed all previous election cycles, and the Senate Public Records Office is continuing to process and forward additional campaign reports to the Commission."
The longest October quarterly filing by far came from the campaign of Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Iowa. His filing came in at more than 26,000 pages, and had to be divided into six scanned PDF files on FEC’s website.
Candidates are only required to itemize campaign contributions from donors that have given at least $200 per election cycle. But Braley’s Q3 filing itemizes contributions as small as a dollar.
Braley’s October quarterly was more than eight times as long as that of his Republican opponent, Iowa state senator Joni Ernst, despite Ernst more than doubling Braley’s third-quarter fundraising.
Quarterly filings for Democratic candidates in Senate races in Iowa, Kentucky, Colorado, Arkansas, Alaska, and Louisiana—competitive races in which both candidates’ October quarterlies are available—contained more than five times as many pages, on average, as those of their Republican opponents.
Tim Miller, the executive director of Republican research firm America Rising, claims Democratic candidates are trying to bog down the FEC with unnecessarily long filings in order to prevent scrutiny of their donors.
"It shows how hollow Democrats’ anti-money-in-politics rhetoric is when they are taking tens of millions from radical anti-energy advocates and then creating roadblocks to transparency in their campaign funding," Miller said in an email.
The FEC says it can’t yet comment on the reasons behind its data backlog.
"I cannot speak to why the senate reports are more lengthy this reporting period than previous periods," said commission spokeswoman Julia Queen. "We won't know total financial summary information until all the reports have been received."
Transparency advocates say that that backlog underscores the need for the Senate to implement mandatory electronic filing for FEC reports.
"It shows that its about time that the Senate stops dragging its feet and using archaic—not to mention expensive to the taxpayer—ways to say who’s financing their campaigns," said Sunlight Foundation spokeswoman Gabriela Schneider in an interview.
Unlike candidates for the House of Representatives, Senate candidates are permitted to file paper copies of their FEC reports, which the commission then inputs into its electronic filing system.
Schneider called the system "embarrassing."
Asked about the potential that candidates are filing lengthy reports in order to obscure key data, Schneider said, "It wouldn’t surprise me."
"They are dragging out the process regardless by filing on paper and they’re costing taxpayer money at the same time," she added.
While it is not required, candidates still may opt to file electronically, and the FEC says they "are strongly encouraged to do so." Twenty-one sitting senators voluntarily e-filed their first quarter reports this year, many professing support for transparency in elections.
Braley has expressed similar sentiments—"transparency is a legitimate and noble purpose that everyone should embrace," he said at a 2011 hearing—but chose to file his Q3 report on paper.
His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.