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Online Contextual and Technical Usability

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Online Contextual and Technical Usability was the category in which states exhibited the most change in 2005, both positive and negative.  While 20 states improved their grades in this category, 15 states received lower grades than in 2004, largely because of changes in usability testing scores.  The reduction in the number of states receiving failing grades in this category—from 21 in 2004 to only 11 in 2005—signals that overall, states are continuing to make progress in the area of web site usability.

In Grading State Disclosure 2005, one state received an A, five states received B grades, and twelve states received C grades. Twenty-one states received D grades and eleven states received failing grades.

  • 20 states publish current campaign finance analyses online, including lists of total amounts raised and spent by statewide and/or legislative candidates in the most recent election.
  • Of these 20, all but one also provide this information for previous elections.
  • 4 states publish historical campaign finance analyses online, but do not provide similar analyses for the most recent election. 
  • 26 states do not provide any compilations of summary data online.
  • 46 states provide information about campaign finance restrictions online.
  • 50 states post information about disclosure reporting requirements online.
  • 45 states feature lists of candidates for the most recent or current election on their disclosure web sites.
  • 22 states provide comprehensive information explaining which disclosure reports are available online.
  • 11 states provide little or no information explaining which disclosure reports are available online.
  • 41 disclosure web sites are easily located from the state homepage.

Significant Changes Since 2004

  • 3 states added or made improvements to summary campaign finance analysis information on their web sites (Hawaii, Iowa and Virginia).
  • 3 states added or made improvements to candidate lists online (Hawaii, Iowa and New Jersey).
  • 2 states improved their explanations of which reports can be found on their disclosure web sites (Hawaii and Oregon).
  • 4 states expanded the scope of campaign finance information available online to include both original reports and clearly labeled amended reports (Kentucky, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin).
  • 3 states added or improved information about campaign finance restrictions (Arkansas, Maine and Oklahoma).

States with the best contextual and technical web site usability, in rank order from one to ten, are:  Idaho; Alaska and Illinois (tied for 2nd); Florida; Massachusetts; Washington; Iowa; Virginia; North Dakota; and Kansas, Kentucky and South Dakota (tied for 10th).

States with the weakest contextual and technical web site usability, in rank order from 41 to 50, are:  New York; Wyoming; New Mexico; Connecticut and Colorado (tied for 44th); South Carolina; New Hampshire; Arizona; Montana; and Nebraska.

The Grading State Disclosure criteria place considerable importance on the availability of resources that give the public some context when looking at campaign finance data, and the most important contextual resource is compilations of the total amounts of money raised and spent by individual candidates.  These overviews allow people to compare spending by different candidates for a single office, as well as gain a better understanding of money in politics trends.  The study found that 19 states provide lists of total amounts raised and spent by all statewide and legislative candidates, in both the most recent election and previous ones.  Four additional states provide historical summary data, but offer none for current candidates.  This year, Hawaii and Iowa added complete current and historical overview data to their disclosure web sites, and Virginia added an overview for statewide candidates only.  Twenty-six states still do not provide any compilations of data online, making it more difficult for the public to easily compare fundraising and spending across candidates and election cycles.

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Another essential element of contextual usability is whether a state’s disclosure web site contains adequate information to help the public determine the scope of candidates’ reports and campaign data available online.  Just under half of the states (22) do a very good job in this area, providing explanations of which types of candidates’ reports are available, the time period covered by the online data, and which specific reports can be viewed for each campaign committee.  These states’ sites often feature detailed descriptions of available data, along with interfaces for accessing online reports that clearly show which candidates’ reports are included.  Two states—Oregon and Hawaii—made progress in this area in 2005, but there are still eleven states that provide very little or no information about the data on their disclosure web sites.

The study found that 30 states make both original and amended campaign reports available online, with 28 of those states (all except Alabama and Arkansas) clearly labeling amended reports as such.  There was considerable improvement in the handling of amended filings in 2005, with Kentucky, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin all making progress in this area.  Kentucky developed a particularly user-friendly way to display changes to previously-filed campaign finance reports, and gives visitors to its disclosure web site the ability to identify specific, itemized transactions that have been amended.

The availability of detailed, technical instructions designed to help site visitors access and navigate the campaign finance data on state disclosure web sites is another important part of web site usability, particularly in those states that have complex searchable databases, multiple access points for campaign records, or very large amounts of data online.  While all but three of the 47 states posting data online provide some guidance to site visitors, the study found that only 24 states publish comprehensive sets of instructions or user manuals.  States that provide particularly thorough instructions for site users include California, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Rhode Island and Washington.

Finally, one-third of the possible points in the study’s Online Contextual and Technical Usability category come from the usability testing conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles, which is designed to measure the public’s ability to locate a state’s disclosure web site and extract from it accurate answers to specific questions about candidates’ campaign finance activity.  Many states lost ground in the usability test in 2005 (though some improved their scores) and the reason for the weaker performance could be any number of things.  One possibility is that the visibility of state disclosure web sites on state homepages was affected by the fact that 2005 was not an election year in most states; links to disclosure sites that were prominently displayed on state web portals in 2004, for example, may have been removed in 2005.  Another possibility is that the design and functionality of state disclosure web sites is not keeping pace with either changing technology or the public’s expectations for what a web site should look like and how it should function.

In any case, the usability test results confirm that all disclosure web sites—even the best—must be constantly reviewed and updated in order to keep up with technological advances and continue to meet the public’s evolving needs and expectations.  Fourteen state disclosure agencies redesigned their web sites in 2005, with some simply updating the site’s look, and others completely overhauling both the site’s design and structure.  Maintaining and improving their web sites will continue to be a challenge for disclosure agencies in the future, but one that must be taken seriously if states truly wish to provide the public with meaningful access to campaign data and give people a way to easily and accurately “follow the money.”


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This page was first published on October 26, 2005
| Last updated on October 26, 2005
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Campaign Disclosure Project. All rights reserved.