Title Image

Search CFIC:

DATA: A number of states offering it electronically
But 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.

Candidate filings 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.

In compiling 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.

Another encouraging 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.

If you 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.

North Carolina, 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).

California posed 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” field.

Second, amended 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 msylwester@usatoday.com.

Return to Tracker.