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In the criteria, significant weight was placed on the comprehensiveness of state Campaign Disclosure Laws. Good campaign disclosure laws require the reporting of detailed information about contributions and expenditures. In particular, the disclosure of some critical pieces of information – including a contributor's occupation and employer, subvendor information for expenditures, and reporting of last minute contributions and independent expenditures – all enhance the public's ability to access campaign finance data in a timely fashion. States require the disclosure of detailed contribution and expenditure information at varying thresholds, but the criteria did not evaluate the appropriateness of these thresholds (although they are mentioned in the findings for each state.)

Occupation and employer data for campaign contributors is crucial for categorizing donations or identifying efforts by large corporations and organizations to bundle their employees' contributions. Information about subvendors, including credit card providers and campaign consultants, is important in order to capture campaign expenses that might otherwise go unreported. Reporting of last-minute contributions and independent expenditures, prior to an election, helps voters identify which individuals and organizations are conducting last-minute efforts to influence the outcome of the election. Strong enforcement and frequent reporting of campaign finances by candidates are also necessary components of meaningful disclosure laws.

In the Electronic Filing category, great value was placed on whether states have passed laws mandating the electronic filing of campaign finance disclosure information. The receipt of campaign finance data in an electronic format often leads to the availability of the information on the Internet. If data is submitted in an electronic format, the agency can post data online more quickly and in formats that allow for more meaningful analysis of campaign finance reports. Many states with electronic filing have created searchable databases of contributions and expenditures, or made data available in formats that can be sorted or downloaded. While voluntary electronic filing does lead to some expanded accessibility to campaign finance data, mandatory electronic filing is preferred because it is more likely to result in timely, comprehensive online disclosure.

The Disclosure Content Accessibility category evaluated the degree to which the content of disclosure reports is available to the public both on paper and on the Internet. The states' efforts to make paper records accessible to the public, such as the ease of obtaining records from a distance, the cost of the records and the length of time it takes to obtain the records, was part of this assessment. Significant weight was placed on the use of the Internet to publish state campaign finance disclosure information, based on the Project's belief that the Internet is the most effective and affordable way for state agencies to make campaign finance data accessible to the public.

In the criteria, importance was given to the scope of campaign finance data on disclosure web sites and the ways in which that data could be analyzed. This included the availability of features such as databases of contributions and expenditures that allow searching across all filers (both electronic and paper) and on a number of fields. Whether states allow the public to sort data by reordering categories of information, browse records, or download data so it can be analyzed offline, were factors. State disclosure sites were also evaluated for offering and explaining “smart search” features, such as partial name and “name sounds like” lookups.

Of equal importance to the accessibility of campaign finance records was Online Contextual and Technical Usability – the degree to which state disclosure web sites are technically and contextually “user-friendly” to the public. This category was a combination of web research by Project staff and usability testing by outside testers. States that did well in usability were those that: have disclosure web sites that are easy to locate from the state's home page; provide information explaining the state's campaign finance laws, disclosure requirements and reporting periods; provide instructions for how to access the data on the site; publish analyses or overviews of campaign finance activity; publish both original and amended campaign finance reports; and give a clear explanation of which candidates and reports are online.

Significant weight was placed on the availability of analyses of campaign finance activity, which give the public a better understanding of how one candidate's fundraising and spending compares to another, and also how campaign finance trends change over time. Given the current budgetary situation in many states, however, resources may not allow for in-depth, comprehensive analyses. In those cases, a simple chart of total amounts raised and spent by individual candidates would serve a similar purpose.

Also of importance in the usability section of the criteria, was the posting and clear labeling of amended campaign finance reports on the web, with the retention of original filings online. Being able to view original and amended reports side-by-side helps the public determine when and what changes have been made to those reports.

The full Grading State Disclosure criteria are included in an appendix at the end of this report.

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This page was first published on September 17, 2003
| Last updated on September 17, 2003
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