2010 was a dark, even apocryphal election during which much of the political spending was from groups who did not reveal themselves. In the 2012 election, we might just have a bit more transparency. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited sums on elections. The case also ruled that transparency rules still apply to political ads. Justice Kennedy wrote, “A campaign finance system that pairs corporate independent expenditures with effective disclosure has not existed before to-day.” This phrase from the court basically cries out for the political branches to act to bring better disclosure to elections. At long last, at least one federal agency has awakened from its deep slumber to bring the public improved transparency on political spending. It wasn’t the moribund Federal Election Commission (FEC). On April 27, 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to place broadcasters’ political files online. This is a big step in the right direction.
Broadcasters are required to keep records of how much they charge political candidates. This is known as “the political file.” There’s a good reason for this. It is to ensure that broadcasters are not charging Democratic candidates more than Republicans or vice versa. Furthermore, under the BCRA statue, broadcasters are required to charge campaigns the lowest unit rates for ads. Having a political file that is open to public inspection helps ensure that the broadcasters are living up to their public interest duties.
The problem was that each public file was kept in each individual TV station. Thus, aggregating data across TV stations on political spending on television ads was nearly impossible, or at least cost-prohibitive. The new FCC rule will move TV broadcasters’ political files from physical file cabinets to the Web. This brings vital election data into the 21st century, allowing the public to see political spending on TV ads across the nation in nearly real time.