More than 2,300 contributions in FEC records are not easily traceable to their source because of missing name data. Moreover, nearly 2,400 spending records are missing the name of the recipient. The Center for Public Integrity’s analysis indicates the overwhelming majority of missing names seem to be missing because of an error in digitization.
Another common error is the missing or misplaced decimal:
The dollar amount for the $2,500 contribution above was recorded as $250,000. Though the Center was unable to find every case, a piecemeal review of filings turned up dozens of examples.
Even when paper conversion works right, the FEC itself sometimes errs. In the course of investigating, the Center also found 591 paper filings that incorrectly displayed $0 totals or were missing from the agency’s website entirely. The Center for Public Integrity notified the FEC of the problem in March, and the agency began fixing it in April.
In a statement, the FEC told the Center for Public Integrity it was aware of errors introduced by digitization and said its contractors have worked to reduce such errors. Several of the erroneous records counted above had already been partially corrected by the FEC. In many cases the correction process has resulted in two, side-by-side records: one wrong and the other correct.
“The FEC understands the importance of data quality and takes it seriously,” the FEC’s statement said.
“We still encourage the public to refer to the original paper documents for the most accurate information," the FEC said. “[W]e continue to assess data quality and work with the paper conversion vendors to identify and implement additional changes that will result in higher accuracy."
FEC Commissioner Matthew Petersen, a Republican, called errors “inherent” to paper conversion saying, “Any time you take a process and break it into different segments where you’re going to have to input data, there’s always going to be problems.”
But this doesn’t just boil down to a computer glitch or faulty software.
Working conditions Americans hate
The FEC’s data entry subcontractor, Captricity, uses software that isn’t fully automated. In part, it relies on the poorly paid, and sometimes messy labor of internet users from across the globe.
Captricity administers this kind of work through Mechanical Turk, an Amazon-owned online labor marketplace. On Mechanical Turk, workers earn money by completing hard-to-automate tasks, such as typing out information contained on scanned images of U.S. Senate campaign finance reports. Most tasks only take a few minutes, and they pay a few pennies.
There are an estimated 100,000-200,000 workers on Mechanical Turk today. Amazon says these workers span over 190 countries, though research suggests that the U.S., India, Canada, Great Britain, the Philippines, Venezuela and Germany are the best represented.
Captricity appears to be connected to a Mechanical Turk account named “p9r.” Shortly before an April 2018 FEC filing deadline, p9r posted thousands of tasks asking workers to transcribe data from federal campaign finance reports, including FEC committee names. Workers completing other p9r tasks have connected this account to Captricity’s other clients. And example code posted publicly by Captricity uses the username “p9r” to sign in to a database.
Workers said p9r paid poorly. This makes the work less attractive to higher-paid Americans than it is to foreign workers. It could also help explain why so many of the errors in FEC data went uncorrected.
The FEC-related tasks reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity paid between 1 to 5 cents to transcribe batches of fields. Using data from the website Crowd Workers, the Center for Public Integrity estimated that p9r pays its workers about $2.44 an hour on average.
According to a 2016 United Nations study, the median pay for U.S. workers on Mechanical Turk is $4.65 an hour. The U.S. federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
“The people that hire Mechanical Turk workers are saying: We're not tracking what they're making because they're not our employees,” Miriam Cherry, a professor of law at St. Louis University, said in an interview. “It’s extremely exploitative.”
These conditions could be contributing to U.S. Senate campaign finance data problems. Workers have no incentive to correct or report flawed images. If they type in anything other than what’s in the box, they risk their work being “rejected”: p9r could flag their work as against instructions, and refuse to pay them. Mechanical Turk workers can dispute rejections, but to do so with p9r is to argue over pennies.
“p9r always has pictures that are terribly cropped,” Amanda-Josalene Withrow, a 21-year-old film editor in Norfolk, Virginia, who’s done work on Mechanical Turk, told the Center for Public Integrity.
“They make it clear in their instructions not to type anything that isn't located within the box. Even if I see the correct date outside of the bounded region, I still refrain from typing [it].”
Most of the American workers the Center for Public Integrity spoke to said they no longer take p9r work. Cherry says she thinks low wages are driving much of this work offshore: “If you're going to pay a really low amount, [your workforce] is going to skew towards where people are increasingly desperate.”
A recurring survey of Mechanical Turk workers estimates that 25 percent of current workers are foreign. The largest foreign population is from India. The median wage for Indian Mechanical Turk workers is $1.65 — closer to p9r wages.
The uncomfortable subtext is that a key part of the system that processes the nation’s campaign finance disclosures is open to pretty much anybody. That includes foreign nationals from countries at odds with the U.S., or hackers bent on spreading misinformation.
There are safeguards in place to prevent any single worker from deliberately corrupting data, but no system is perfect.
“The fact that the Federal Election Commission is now having folks all over the globe manually enter campaign finance information into a database is irresponsible,” Jon Tester, the Democratic Senator from Montana, wrote in 2015. “It's long past time the Senate enter the 21st Century and file these reports electronically. We'd save time and protect taxpayers' money and privacy, while improving election transparency. This isn't rocket science, we need to pass my e-file bill."