Unemployed Donors

A friend of mine brought an article to my attention about untraceable ‘unemployed’ donors. It raises concerns about potentially fraudulent campaign donations. The article shows that, according to FEC records, ActBlue is receiving many donations from the unemployed, more so than another PAC, WinRed. The article goes on to suggest that many donations may have been made with prepaid gift cards and that ActBlue is not preventing such transactions. These prepaid gift cards could be used to mask the identity of a contributor. The article cites an analysis concluding that there is something suspicious about the high number of contributors listing no employer.

I thought this was an interesting little conspiracy theory. This would require a coordinated plan to buy prepaid gift cards and make lots of contribution transactions. I did some simple queries against the FEC data to see what kind of contributions list no employer. It shows that some people are listed as RETIRED when searching for NONE as the employer.

This would seem to solve the mystery of how unemployed people can afford to make donations, but I thought I would dig deeper.

The query tool that is provided on the FEC website is not very powerful, so I downloaded the individual contributor data for the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections and loaded it into PostgreSQL.

The data provided by the FEC tracks employer and occupation as two separate fields. This allows me to make more specific queries against the data.

I executed a query sorting total contributions by employer:

Employer Contributions
RETIRED $1,221,089,157
NOT EMPLOYED $1,154,392,972
SELF-EMPLOYED $706,089,353
N/A $616,482,873
NULL $583,663,082
NONE $494,984,639
SELF $466,360,361
SELF EMPLOYED $374,646,099
HOMEMAKER $186,292,785
FAHR, LLC $185,840,526

I remembered I had a prepaid gift card sitting in a desk drawer with a few dollars on it, so I donated $1 each to ActBlue and WinRed, the PACs compared in the article, to see how they handled it. Both of them accepted my “untraceable” dollar without complaint, so it is amusing that the article only beats on ActBlue for this.

Surprisingly, while going through the donation process, I noticed a user experience difference that can explain at least some of the differences in the data. When I donated to WinRed, it prompted me for my occupation and employer immediately. When I donated to ActBlue, it did not prompt me for my occupation and employer unless I selected the checkbox that asked, “Are you currently employed?”. Presumably, retired people would not select that box and would not list their occupation as RETIRED. Such contributions would end up with NULL values for occupation and employer. I found many of these in the data.

I don’t see a vast conspiracy here. I see bad user interface design on campaign websites and Democrats and Republicans spending enormous amounts of money.