DATA: A number of states offering it electronically
the availability, price and especially the quality varies widely.
By MaryJo Sylwester
The Center for Public Integrity
The good news is that getting campaign finance data for state political
party committees in an electronic format is becoming easier every
year. The bad news is that the majority of states haven’t jumped
on that bandwagon just yet. (A state-by-state list is here.)
That is what we discovered while reporting State Secrets, a year-long
investigation of contribution and expenditure reports filed by 225
state party and caucus committees in the 2000 election. The project
was a joint venture between the Center for Public Integrity, the
National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Center for
Responsive Politics. The stories, a searchable database and the
project methodology are available at www.statesecrets.org.
are a little easier to come by. Many states started their electronic
filing programs by requiring it only for candidates. Political party
and PAC reports seem to be less of a priority.
a database of campaign finance reports for state political party
and caucus committees in all 50 states, the Center for Public Integrity
found 32 states had only paper reports available for contribution
and expenditure data.
Fewer than 10
states had everything we needed in electronic format, while about
a dozen others had either certain committees or certain years or
only contribution data electronically. We asked for all filings
from the 2000 election cycle (calendar years 1999 and 2000). In
many cases, the 2000 reports were available electronically while
the 1999 reports were only on paper. That’s a clear sign that
things are improving.
sign is that those states stuck with paper reports are making them
easier to obtain by posting them as PDFs or image files on the Web.
We found it excessively
difficult to obtain reports from the states that don’t have
either PDF files on the Web or electronic data. We either had to
make repeated phone calls or submit multiple requests after we discovered
missing information — either missing pages or entire reports.For
example, our request for Virginia reports took 12 weeks, at least
a dozen phone calls and e-mails and about $120 to get all of the
1999-2000 reports filed by 10 political committees.
live in a state with electronic access, don’t start jumping
for joy just yet.
Many states seem
to be in the infant stage of being data providers to the public.
They provide little if any documentation to understand the fields
in their database or potential pitfalls in working with their data.
At least two states put information from both original and amended
reports in their databases, but provided no way of determining which
record was the original and which the corrected version.
New York, Pennsylvania
and Arizona are among the leaders in providing full access to campaign
finance data through FTP servers — plus adequate documentation
to understand what you’re getting. Colorado, Iowa, Illinois,
Ohio and Alaska put their data on CDs (or diskette) for a nominal
charge (the most we paid was $150). Idaho and Oregon shipped Excel
or text files via e-mail.
Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Texas and Florida allow downloads from
their Web sites. In North Carolina, however, you can only download
the information one committee at a time. Michigan’s download
was incomplete when we tried to get it (the purpose field was missing
on the expenditures), and the state agency indicated they would
fix it but not in the timely manner that we required. Texas’
site is limited to those committees that file electronically (and
not all are required).
the greatest challenge to our project. The state put a slice of
the expenditure data in an Access database, but did not provide
adequate documentation. When I called for assistance, I was directed
to a third-party contractor who was unhelpful and often uncooperative.
Later I found that the information she provided was outright wrong
— and had resulted in hours of unnecessary work for me.
There were two
main problems with the data. First, some committees reported “sub-vendor”
information and those records were lumped in with the regular expenditures
with no apparent flag to separate them. If you simply did a sum
query, your total would be far above what it should be. After months
of confusion, the state’s contractor finally told me the flag
was included in the Access database but it was a “hidden”
records were added to the database, but didn’t replace the
originals. Again you needed a flag to separate them. We found that
the flag was not properly used and you couldn’t extract the
correct data. In the end, we relied primarily on the paper reports
to make sure we got the right data.
Since then, the
state agency has decided to provide the entire database (not an
Access slice) for $5 — we paid $100 — with a heavy disclaimer
about the difficulty in working with it. They are trying to move
toward a downloadable option on their Web site.
There are a couple
of bright notes on the horizon: Both Wisconsin and Washington are
in the midst rolling out new or better databases, and Hawaii indicated
a move in that direction as well.
MaryJo Sylwester was the State Secrets project manager and database
editor for the Center for Public Integrity. She recently joined
USA TODAY as the database editor in the sports department. She can
be reached at email@example.com.
Return to Tracker.