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Online Contextual and Technical Usability

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Online Contextual and Technical Usability is the category in which states exhibited the most change in 2007. A total of 21 states improved their grades in this category, while 20 states received lower grades than in 2005, primarily due to a poorer usability test performance. In 2007, three states earned As in the usability category, the most ever awarded during this study’s history. Six states earned grades in the B range, one more than in 2005. Thirteen states earned Cs, and twelve earned D grades. Sixteen states received Fs in the 2007 assessment, five more than in 2005.

  • States with the best contextual and technical web site usability, in rank order from one to ten, are: Idaho; Massachusetts and Minnesota (tied for 2nd); Illinois; Kansas; Iowa; Ohio; Virginia; Michigan; and Florida, New York and West Virginia (tied for 10th).
  • States with the weakest contextual and technical web site usability, in rank order from 41 to 50, are: Utah; Arizona, Arkansas and Mississippi (tied for 42nd); New Mexico and Wyoming (tied for 45th); Connecticut; Nebraska; New Hampshire; and Montana.

Significant 2007 findings:

  • 25 states offer online overviews of campaign finance data, including comparisons of total amounts raised and spent by candidates;
  • 19 of these states offer overviews of both the most recent and past legislative races; 18 post analyses of both statewide and legislative campaigns;
  • 6 states offer analyses of historical campaign finances;
  • 49 states post information about campaign finance restrictions online and all 50 states provide information about disclosure reporting requirements;
  • 45 states feature lists of candidates for the most recent or current election on their disclosure sites;
  • 23 states provide comprehensive information explaining which disclosure reports are available online;
  • 7 states provide little or no detail explaining which disclosure reports are available online; and
  • 41 disclosure web sites are easily located from their state homepage by either navigating or searching the main state site.

Significant changes since 2005:

  • 9 states improved their explanations of which reports can be found on their disclosure web sites;
  • 2 states improved their instructions for accessing campaign finance data online (Minnesota and Nevada);
  • 3 states added information about campaign finance restrictions (California, Connecticut and Georgia);
  • 2 states provided better explanations of their state’s campaign disclosure requirements (Connecticut and Georgia);
  • 3 states improved the terminology used on their disclosure web sites (Arizona, Nebraska and Texas);
  • 4 states added or made improvements to summary campaign finance information on their web sites (Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey and New York);
  • 3 states expanded the scope of campaign finance information available online to include both original reports and clearly labeled, amended reports (Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota); and
  • 14 disclosure agency web sites were easier to locate from the state homepage.

Campaign Finance Analysis

An important resource that many disclosure agencies offer the public are campaign finance analyses. Statistical compilations that summarize one candidate’s financial activity compared to that of other candidates, or the totals raised and spent in one election relative to past campaigns, provide the public with a greater context for understanding the role of money in their state’s elections. With Michigan and New York adding campaign overview data to their sites since 2005, half of all states now allow the public to more easily compare campaign financing across candidates and election cycles. Of these 25 states, 19 give overviews of both recent and historical elections, and 18 provide such detail for both statewide and legislative candidates. While the remaining six states don’t have the most recent data available, they do maintain historical figures for public review.

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Explanation of the Data Available Online

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 the overall availability of campaign data online. Twenty-three states 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. Colorado and Pennsylvania were among the nine states that improved in this area since 2005, giving visitors to their sites better information about the overall universe of data available, and Nevada now provides users with a better view of each candidate’s filing history. Overall, visitors to 43 of the 50 state disclosure sites can find some amount of detail about what campaign data is available online.

Instructions for Users

Instructing the public how to access the data on the site is an important component of making disclosure sites user-friendly. Considering that many states offer multiple-field database searches and a number of states host scanned reports and electronically-filed reports in different areas online, the availability of a user guide, as well as instructions for use throughout the site, is necessary to ensure that all users (from novice to advanced) can access campaign records as easily as possible. Twenty-one states offer thorough instructions for users. Of the remaining 27 states that publish campaign finance data online, 18 provide at least minimal instructions while nine disclosure sites don’t provide basic instructions to guide users through either the entire site or specific web pages.

Amended Reports

Retaining all of a candidate’s filings online is an important feature, allowing the public a complete view of a candidate’s financial activity, including when candidates amend their original reports. Both original and amended campaign filings are available on nearly two-thirds of state disclosure sites. Of the 32 states retaining original filings online alongside amendments, 30 clearly label their reports so that the public can tell the difference between original and amended reports. Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota all improved in this area in 2007, while Georgia, Hawaii and Oregon maintained access to original filings following transitions to new report filing systems. Of the 16 states that don’t retain original filings alongside amended filings, six at least identify amended reports as such in each candidate’s listing (Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maine, North Dakota and Pennsylvania).

Usability Testing

One-third of the possible points in the study’s Online Contextual and Technical Usability category are determined by the usability testing conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles. The test 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. In the 2007 testing, 22 states improved their performance, and 22 states rated lower in 2007 than in 2005. Specific problems experienced by testers included confusion with site terminology, difficulty finding specific data within the site and a lack of confidence in their overall research experience. As technological and stylistic advancements spread throughout the Internet, public expectations for easy, efficient web site visits may also cause testers to rate site experiences poorly.

Site Redesigns

Demonstrating the need to keep pace with the public’s technological and stylistic expectations, over one-third of the states redesigned their disclosure sites since 2005. Some of these were cosmetic redesigns, while some were major restructuring initiatives. While funding a comprehensive site overhaul is not always feasible, even slight improvements, such as clarifying site terminology and improving linkage from the state homepage to the disclosure site, can make campaign finance sites more user-friendly.


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First published October 16, 2007
| Last updated November 17, 2007
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