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Disclosure Content Accessibility

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Nearly half of the states (21) made some positive changes in the Disclosure Content Accessibility category, which saw the second-highest number of improvements across the states.  There were two more grades in the A range and four more B grades this year than in 2003.  In this year’s assessment, nine states received A grades for Disclosure Content Accessibility, and eight states received B grades.  Six states received C grades, and five states received D grades.  Twenty-two states received failing grades in this category.  Montana, South Carolina, and Wyoming still do not post any campaign finance reports on their web sites, and rank the lowest of all the states in terms of access to campaign finance data.  Other states that received failing grades either have very little data online, or provide it in formats that make it difficult to access.

  • 47 states post campaign finance data on their disclosure web sites.
  • 30 states provide searchable databases of contributions online.
  • 20 states provide searchable databases of expenditures online.
  • 8 states post only scanned images of campaign finance reports.
  • 27 states allow campaign finance data to be downloaded from their websites in Excel-compatible format.
  • 3 states have no campaign finance data available on their web sites.
  • 32 states post campaign finance data online within 48 hours.

Significant Changes Since 2003

  • 4 states added online searchable databases of contributions.
  • 4 states added online searchable databases of expenditures.
  • 1 state removed a searchable database of contributions and expenditures from its disclosure web site (Nevada).
  • 3 states reduced the search capabilities featured on their web sites.
  • 7 states improved how quickly campaign finance data is posted online.
  • 3 states added features that allow campaign finance data to be downloaded from the web.

States that provide the best access to campaign finance records, in rank order from one to ten, are:  Washington; Michigan and Rhode Island (tied for 2nd); California; Florida; Maryland; Hawaii, Georgia and Ohio (tied for 8th); Indiana and Illinois (tied for 10th).

States with the weakest access to campaign finance records, in rank order from 41 to 50 are: Arkansas; Alabama, Nevada and South Dakota (tied for 42nd); Oregon; Minnesota; New Hampshire; Montana; Wyoming; South Carolina.

The most encouraging patterns identified in the area of Disclosure Content Accessibility are an increase in the number of online searchable campaign finance databases, and a decrease in the lag time between when campaign finance reports are filed and when they become available online for public viewing.  Six states added or made improvements to searchable databases on their disclosure agency web sites:  California and Missouri added searchable databases of both contributions and expenditures; North Dakota and Tennessee added searchable databases of contributions; and Alaska and Georgia added searchable databases of expenditures to complement their existing contributions databases.

While online accessibility generally improved across the states, three states lost ground in this area in 2004.  The database of campaign contributions and expenditures that was online in Nevada in 2003 had been part of a pilot program, and is no longer available online. The agency is revisiting its electronic filing and disclosure program, and plans to re-introduce the database with enhanced capacity.  Delaware’s searchable database contained no current records for 2004; the most recent data available related to the 2002 election.  Throughout this project’s research window, Texas’ database was unable to perform a search across all filers, even though the interface is designed to allow such a search.  The Texas Ethics Commission traced the problem to a server capacity issue and has recently restored the full search capabilities, but the state’s grade in this category suffered as a result in 2004.

The quality and comprehensiveness of the campaign finance data available online vary widely depending on the state.  Twenty-seven states post campaign finance data from all reports by all candidates.  Of these, 21 states allow site visitors to view all of the data in a digital format, while the other six feature digital campaign finance data for electronic filers and provide either summary totals or scanned PDF documents for reports filed on paper. Two states post very minimal campaign finance data online: New Hampshire offers data for statewide candidates only, and Oregon posts only summary information, (but is working toward making all filings available online). 

Forty-three of the states posting campaign finance data on the web provide some itemized contribution and expenditure data, while four states allow viewing of itemized contributions only.  Forty states provide an index of all reports available for an individual candidate.  In general, states do a good job of posting campaign finance data online in a timely manner.  Thirty-two states post all campaign finance records to the Internet within 48 hours, while four more post all data within five days.  Five states post e-filed data immediately but have delays of up to two weeks for paper reports, and Hawaii and Maine post electronic filings immediately but do not post paper reports for more than two weeks.  Four states, Alaska, Indiana, Kansas and Minnesota, often take more than one week to post any records on the Internet.

The study found that 30 states provide searchable databases of campaign contributions on their web sites, and 20 provide expenditure databases. Of the 20 states with no searchable databases, at least five allow users to download campaign finance data in Excel-compatible format from the disclosure web site.  Analysis of these findings reveals the important role of mandatory electronic filing in creating comprehensive public access to campaign finance data.  States with mandatory electronic filing programs are somewhat more likely to have a searchable database of contributions than states with voluntary electronic filing programs (81% vs 59%); and much more likely than states with no electronic filing program (81% vs 25%).  Mandatory e-filing has an even greater impact on the availability of an expenditure database: 67% of states with mandatory electronic filing have an expenditure database, compared to only 35% of states with voluntary electronic filing.  None of the states without electronic filing offer a searchable database of campaign expenditures online. 

The three states with no electronic filing that offer searchable campaign contribution databases online – Idaho, Kansas and North Dakota - illustrate that even in states without electronic filing, disclosure agencies are capable of providing user-friendly access to campaign finance data in a digital format if they make it a priority.  Agency staff in all three states data-enter contribution information from all candidates’ reports, in order to create the contribution databases.

While the Disclosure Content Accessibility category is heavily focused on access to disclosure records via the Internet, the study also looked at access to disclosure records on paper.  In most states (41), it is relatively easy for the public to obtain paper copies of campaign finance records through a simple request by phone, fax or e-mail.  In nine states, significant barriers to accessing paper records exist, or requests for paper records take more than one week to be processed.  In South Carolina the barriers to access are especially troubling considering that the disclosure agency offers no campaign finance data online.

The cost of paper records ranges significantly across the states, from as little as three cents per page in Ohio, to as much as one dollar per page in Alabama, Nevada and South Dakota.  In 14 states the cost of paper records is less than $.10 per page; in ten states paper records cost more than $.25 per page. A number of states will also e-mail data or compile it on a disk or CD and mail it upon request; New Mexico and Rhode Island recently added this option.  Generally this service is provided free of charge or for the cost of the disk, although a handful of states charge a large fee for data compiled on a CD.

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This page was first published on October 25, 2004
| Last updated on October 25, 2004
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