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Digital Sunlight – A look back, a look ahead

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Since the early 1990's, local, state and federal disclosure agencies have been developing and fine tuning electronic filing programs and moving toward Internet disclosure of campaign finance reports, in an effort to improve public access to campaign disclosure data. In 1999, the California Voter Foundation (CVF) conducted a nationwide survey of states' progress toward Internet disclosure of money in politics, examining efforts to require and implement electronic filing of campaign disclosure reports, and evaluating the quality and scope of state agency campaign finance disclosure web sites.

The Campaign Disclosure Project's 2003 “Grading State Disclosure” survey builds and expands upon CVF's 1999 Digital Sunlight Awards research, to include an examination of each state's disclosure laws and a more in-depth look at the content, quality and usability of state disclosure web sites. Not only is the 2003 Grading State Disclosure criteria more detailed than that used in the Digital Sunlight Awards study, but the bar has also been set higher with increased expectations of what government agencies and legislatures can do to make campaign finance information more accessible to the public online.

While the two studies differ in a number of ways, there are some basic questions that were asked in both. Comparing the answers to these questions provides a good overview of how much progress has been made nationwide in state campaign finance disclosure programs over the past four years.

Electronic Filing Programs

By 1999, 17 states had enacted laws to require electronic filing by statewide and/or legislative candidates. Seven of those states – Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, and Washington – had mandatory electronic filing programs up and running by 1999. The other ten were in the process of phasing in mandatory electronic filing requirements, often by first implementing voluntary programs. Those states are Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. Another 15 states were offering voluntary electronic filing or were making plans to do so in the near future. Eighteen states had made no progress toward electronic filing at that time.

The 2003 research shows that each of the ten states that had enacted but had not implemented a mandatory electronic filing law by 1999, did in fact establish an electronic filing program and generally stayed on schedule for phased-in implementation (although states in which electronic filing requirements were enacted via the initiative process were less likely to implement programs on time).

Implementation appears to have been successful for the most part. Despite earlier concerns that electronic filing would be an onerous task for filers, no states have repealed their electronic filing mandates since 1999. However, three states – Florida, Oregon and Texas – continue to provide “opt-out” provisions in the law that allow candidates to file reports on paper by submitting statements saying they are not able to file electronically.

In addition to the states that have implemented existing requirements since 1999, Georgia, Michigan, Rhode Island and South Carolina have passed new laws mandating electronic filing, and Colorado, Delaware and Nevada now have voluntary electronic filing programs. South Carolina's electronic filing requirement was signed into law in June 2003, so its program is just getting underway. Many states have generally expanded and improved their electronic filing programs over the last four years as well.

Thirteen states have made no progress toward electronic filing since 1999: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Campaign Disclosure Web Sites

Over the past four years, progress toward improving public access to campaign finance information through state disclosure web sites has been mixed, but generally the states are moving in the right direction. Most encouraging, is the fact that today every state disclosure agency at least has a presence on the Internet, as opposed to 1999, when several agencies did not have web sites at all.

Another improvement is an increase in the number of states providing campaign finance data online. In 1999, many states provided little or no campaign finance data on the Internet, but today just three states – Montana, South Carolina, and Wyoming – have no data on their web sites. South Carolina's new electronic filing requirement will help move that state quickly toward online disclosure of campaign finance data. Several states that had limited or no data on the web in 1999, now have summary data or are making images of scanned paper disclosure reports available online. These states include Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

A handful of states that previously scanned and published disclosure reports online, but provided no way to search that data, today have searchable campaign contribution databases. Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Nevada, and Washington have all added contribution databases to their web sites since CVF last evaluated those sites.

Several states expanded the scope and type of campaign finance data accessible online, and others improved the functionality of their databases and overall usability of their web sites. For example, in 1999, Arizona was suppressing information about contributors' occupation and employer from its online display of campaign finance records; now that information is available. Illinois' online database used to feature only contributions of $500 or more, but now features all itemized contributions. Massachusetts' online database featured only contributions to statewide candidates in 1999; now it includes contributions to legislative candidates as well.

Examples of improvement in web site functionality and usability include Ohio's online contributions database, which was incredibly slow and frustrating to use in 1999, but now is much faster and more user-friendly. Alaska improved in this area as well. In 1999, the only option for viewing data on Alaska's disclosure web site was to search a contributions database; now the public can also browse lists of all contributions contained in individual disclosure reports.

Unfortunately, some states have made little or no progress in terms of accessibility to campaign finance data on the Internet, including two states that were previously on the cutting-edge of online campaign finance disclosure. Hawaii and Louisiana – whose databases were designed by the same technology consultant and were at one time considered among the best available – have been surpassed in this area by other states whose newer databases are more user-friendly and technologically advanced. Although Hawaii's overall rank in the 2003 Grading State Disclosure study is high, its web site received a failing grade for contextual and technical usability; Louisiana, a “Digital Sunlight Award” recipient, received Ds for both content accessibility and usability in the 2003 study.

States that show the least amount of improvement in the areas of electronic filing and accessibility to disclosure data on the Internet include Alabama, Montana, and Wyoming. States that show the most overall improvement include Delaware, Georgia, Maryland and Rhode Island.

Though it varies widely from state to state and there are some that still lag behind, overall the 50 states have succeeded in moving more campaign finance data into the “digital sunlight” and have made progress toward better electronic filing programs and more comprehensive electronic filing mandates.

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