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Online Contextual and Technical Usability

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Online Contextual and Technical Usability was the only category in which nearly all states performed poorly in Grading State Disclosure 2003, so it was encouraging to find that in 2004 it was the category in which the states improved most.  Forty states made at least one positive change to the usability of their disclosure web sites in 2004, and a number made significant advancements in this area.

In 2003, no state received a grade in the A range in this category; this year Illinois and Washington both received an A-.  Eight states received B grades, up from four last year, and six states received C grades. Thirteen states received D grades and twenty-one states received failing grades. The high number of states receiving low grades in this category indicates there is still substantial opportunity for states to improve the technical usability of their websites, and to provide the contextual information required for the public to make sense of campaign finance reports.

  • 20 states publish current campaign finance analyses online, including lists of total amounts raised and spent for individual candidates in the most recent election. Of these, 16 states also include historical analyses.
  • 2 states publish historical campaign finance analyses online, but do not provide similar analyses for the most recent election. 
  • 28 states do not provide any compilations of summary data online.
  • 45 states provide information about campaign finance restrictions online; all 50 states post information about disclosure reporting requirements online.
  • 43 states feature a list of candidates for the most recent or current elections on their disclosure web site.
  • 7 states do not provide candidate lists on their disclosure web sites.
  • 22 states provide comprehensive information regarding which disclosure reports are available online.
  • 13 states provide no information regarding which disclosure reports are available online.
  • 39 disclosure web sites are easily located from the state homepage.

Significant Changes Since 2003

  • 8 states added or made improvements to summary campaign finance analysis information on their web sites.
  • 22 states made it easier to locate the campaign finance disclosure web site from the state homepage.
  • 5 states improved instructions for accessing campaign finance records.
  • 4 states improved their explanations of which reports can be found on their web sites.

States with the best contextual and technical web site usability, in rank order from one to ten, are: Illinois and Washington (tied for 1st); Alaska, Indiana and California (tied for 3rd); Tennessee; Idaho; Florida; Michigan; and Massachusetts.

States with the weakest contextual and technical web site usability, in rank order from 41 to 50, are:  New York; Arizona and Oklahoma (tied for 42nd); Iowa; Wyoming; Connecticut; New Mexico; South Carolina; Montana; and New Hampshire.

The most common areas of improvement within the Online Contextual and Technical Usability category were: summary campaign finance data; terminology; ease of locating the disclosure web site; instructions; candidate lists; and explanations of which reports are available online.  As noted above, 40 states made at least one improvement in web site usability, although some states also had negative changes that outweighed their gains in this category.

Perhaps the most important technical usability aspect of online campaign disclosure is ensuring that visitors can easily locate the disclosure agency’s web site.  In last year’s study, this proved to be difficult in the majority of the states.  Twenty-two states made it easier in 2004 to locate the disclosure web site by browsing or conducting a search of the state homepage.  This improvement may be due partly to more prominent placement of links to disclosure information on state homepages during an election year.  In 33 states it is easy to find the disclosure site through a search of the state web site, and in 21 states it is easy to locate disclosure records by navigating to the disclosure agency from the state homepage. In eleven states, members of the public are subject to a lengthy and potentially frustrating process of identifying the state agency responsible for providing access to campaign finance disclosure records.

The terminology used on a disclosure web site can make a critical difference in the accessibility of campaign finance data and usability of state web sites.  Last year’s study found that 40 percent of the state disclosure web sites had serious terminology problems.  While only 12 percent of sites this year were found to use very confusing terminology, another 25 percent received only a “fair” rating in this category, showing there is still room for progress.  A number of states made key changes in terminology that significantly improved the public’s ability to locate and understand campaign finance reports.  Maine, which changed the link to view campaign reports from “Maine Campaign Finance Electronic Filing” to “Search Campaign Finance Information” is a good example of an improvement in terminology.

A number of states made significant improvements in providing web site visitors with overviews of campaign finance data for current and past elections.  Alaska and California, which had stopped providing summary analyses online following the introduction of electronic filing, reintroduced those resources to their web sites in a slightly different form in 2004.  Twenty states now provide lists of total amounts raised and spent by all state candidates in the most recent election, giving citizens a way to quickly compare fundraising across candidates and gain a better understanding of political money trends in their states.  Of the states that provide current summary data, sixteen also provide historical overviews.  Two additional states provide historical data on total amounts raised and spent by candidates, but offer no summary data for current elections.

Grading State Disclosure 2004 found that all fifty state disclosure agencies post information about campaign finance reporting requirements online, and forty-five feature some information about campaign finance restrictions, such as contribution and expenditure limits.  The most significant improvement in this area happened in Delaware, which previously lacked contextual information about state disclosure laws altogether.  Arkansas and Indiana added comprehensive information about disclosure reporting requirements to their disclosure web sites.

Also in the area of contextual usability, the study found that 22 states provide adequate information to help site visitors understand what campaign finance data is available on their disclosure web sites.  Data history information typically includes which types of filers’ reports are online, the timeframe covered by the online records, and which specific filings are available for each candidate.  Fifteen states provide some of this contextual information, but do not give site visitors a complete picture of which reports they may or may not be able to access through the site.  Thirteen states provide inadequate or no information about which reports are available on the disclosure agency website.

Grading State Disclosure 2004 also evaluated disclosure agency web sites on the availability of both original and amended filings online, as well as on how clearly amended filings are labeled as such.  Twenty-five states make both original and amended reports available on the Internet; however, two of those states, Alabama and Arkansas, do not clearly label amended reports.  Of the 27 states that do not retain original filings online after amendments have been posted, only four – Maryland, Maine, North Dakota and Pennsylvania – clearly indicate that a filing has been amended.

Comprehensive lists of candidates in current or recent elections were found to be available in 39 of the 50 states. This makes it easier for people researching disclosure data to view candidate reports in the larger context of the election, and to compare the reports of various candidates running for the same office.  Four additional states provide lists that name candidates but are missing other information, such as party affiliation or office sought.  Seven states provide no candidate lists, or even archived election results, which can serve a similar purpose.

The number of improvements made across the country in the Online Contextual and Technical Usability category in 2004 was encouraging, and hopefully points to additional progress in 2005.  While improving the usability of state disclosure web sites does require some money and a certain level of commitment from a state disclosure agency, it does not require an act of the legislature or the implementation of an entirely new program.  Even minimal changes in the amount of contextual information provided online, clarification of terminology, and minor revisions to a web site’s structure can affect the usability of a web site significantly and can result in dramatic improvements in the accessibility of campaign finance information.

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