Campaign data access is criticized

Campaign data access is criticized

BY Martha Stoddard

LINCOLN – Nebraska flunked – and Iowa earned a D – in a new study of how well states are shining sunlight on campaign finances.

At least one state lawmaker wants to see if Nebraska can do better.

State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln said he will look into what it would take to improve public access to information about campaign fundraising and spending by Nebraska politicians.

He said that Nebraska falls short in making campaign finance information easily available and useful to citizens via the Internet and that any problems can be addressed without changing state law.

Frank Daley, executive director of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, said Nebraska may never do well on the study because it applies one standard to all states, large and small.

He said Nebraska has a different political culture than a state such as California, where thousands of candidates mean different disclosure needs. He said he believes Nebraska’s disclosure program serves the needs of the public, press and campaigns in the state.

“Our priority is not to meet the research needs or research goals of an out-of-state organization,” Daley said. “Our ultimate goal is to meet the needs of Nebraskans.”

Charlie Smithson, executive director and general counsel of Iowa’s Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, said he expects the state’s score to improve with a law passed this year that will require electronic filing of campaign finance reports.

“Overall, I think it’s a pretty fair study,” Smithson said.

The study looked at campaign disclosure laws, programs for filing campaign reports electronically, public access to campaign information and usability of campaign finance Web sites.

The study, in its fourth year, was conducted by the Campaign Disclosure Project, a collaboration of the California Voter Foundation, the Center for Governmental Studies and the UCLA School of Law.

The foundation promotes the use of technology in the democratic process; the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies focuses on problems and processes of self-government. Both are nonprofit and nonpartisan.

The study was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which support a number of public policy and civic initiatives.

Nebraska and Iowa got higher grades for their state laws requiring reporting by candidates and campaign donors than for the job they do in making that reported information publicly available.

Both lost points because they don’t require disclosure of the occupation or employer of campaign contributors.

Daley and Smithson said occupation and employer information is useful in states that limit donations from businesses or political action committees. The information can show attempts to evade the donation limits. Neither Nebraska nor Iowa has such limits.

Avery said he doesn’t believe occupation and employer information is needed because most people looking at campaign reports recognize the names of contributors.

Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska said he doesn’t always know the background of donors. Requiring occupation and employer reporting would show whether a donor has ties to a special interest group, he said.

Nebraska and Iowa got failing grades for programs to allow candidates and others to file campaign reports by computer – Nebraska has no such electronic filing; Iowa’s program is voluntary and not widely used.

The two states also failed at making campaign disclosure information easily available to the public.

The study focused heavily on Internet accessibility, including searchable databases with many options for sorting, browsing or downloading. Study authors said they did so because “the Internet is the most effective and affordable way” to make information available to citizens.

Daley said he hopes Nebraska will be ready to allow political action committees, unions and businesses to file campaign spending reports by computer sometime next year. Candidates may be able to file their campaign reports by computer sometime after that.

In Nebraska, state workers transfer data from paper reports filed by candidates, political action committees and other organizations onto the state’s Web site. The data cannot be searched easily. Finding all the contributions made by a particular individual, for example, requires looking at the reports filed by every candidate.

Iowa will require electronic filing for all state-level candidates by 2012.

Currently, Iowa reports not filed electronically are scanned and posted as documents on the Web. The data cannot be searched easily, although the state’s Web site provides some aggregate and historical data.

By contrast, the highest scoring state in the study, Washington, allows users to look up campaign contributions and expenditures in different ways. A search, for example, can show that six Democrats hired Argo Strategies to help in their State Senate campaigns in 2006. A search could show that attorneys contributed a total of $20,765 to Republicans running for the Washington House that year.

Iowa’s Smithson said it would be useful to have a searchable database. Such databases are more easily created when campaign reports come in electronically.

Date: 11/13/2007 12:00:00 AM