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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1998

    Changing Toward Online Access to Information
    Bob Watada
    Executive Director, Hawaii Campaign Spending Commision

    The national debate on campaign finance reform clearly serves to demonstrate that much greater light needs to be placed on how our elected officials finance their campaigns. The current Senate hearings merely show that money and politics are very much a part of the political landscape.

    One question: What are states doing to illuminate the flow of money to candidates, and what are they doing to help the public better understand the connections between money and politics?

    Hawaii Takes the Lead

    Hawaii has taken major steps to bring light to the flow of money in politics by becoming one of the leading states to move toward online disclosure of campaign finances. In 1995, the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission reviewed its role as an important "watchdog" agency in the political community. This review resulted in new initiatives to insure that the Commission carried out the critical role for which it was originally conceived.

    The Commission sought, and was successful, in bringing about needed campaign spending reform legislation to facilitate more openness in the disclosure of candidate reports. One of the most far-reaching amendments opened the way for the Commission to take advantage of existing technology in communication.

    The Commission serves to insure public access to candidates' reports on contributions and expenditures. Prior to the amendments, the information was available to anyone who wanted to find their way up the dark stairs and murky hallways to the Commission's office. The files were well-maintained, but the information in the reports was indecipherable and in some cases illegible. For the most part, public access and campaign spending disclosure was an oxymoron.

    The 1995 change mandated that the major offices of governor, lieutenant governor, mayor and prosecuting attorney (county council was added in 1997) file campaign spending reports electronically. Funding was provided to the Commission to develop an electronic filing system. The change in the law and the funding for an electronic system was a critical accomplishment for the Commission.

    Electronic filing would open the public access door to the 21st century! With the assistance of an outside consultant, software was developed for candidates to file by electronic or digital means. The candidate could file by diskette, modem or directly on to the Internet. Filing directly on to the Internet would mean that the candidate's disclosure report would become available instantaneously to the public. Agency software was developed to accept the reports and allow for immediate analysis of the data.

    The aim of the commission is to eliminate any intervention of the campaign finance information from the candidate to the public. The candidate, under clear guidelines, inputs information with the use of customized software. The software program, additionally, functions as a record-keeping system to enable financial management by the candidate. Prompts inform the candidate of any potential illegal contributions. Prior to sending the report, the candidate performs a "diagnostic" to insure the integrity of the data to be submitted. With a click of the send key, the data is on the Internet. The candidate and the Commission receive a fax message to confirm the transmittal. The information on the Internet is raw data which details each contributor, how much they donated, and the employer and occupation of large donors. The contributor information on the Internet can be manipulated by the user to answer questions such as who the largest contributors were and where they worked.

    Public access to candidates' contribution and expenditure data is now as close as your computer. In the near future, anyone will be able to find out which interest group is giving contributions to which candidates by turning on their television set to the Internet channel. The voting public and the media welcome the development of electronic filing on to the Internet. They need to be encouraged to use this wealth of information.

    Candidate data in digital form made enforcement of the campaign finance law realistic. The first stage of enforcement can now be done with the aid of computers. The computer is used to immediately detect missed deadlines, defective reports and ferret out certain illegal contributions. Analyzing the data through a query system facilitates early detection of questionable contributions or expenditures.

    A number of states are now moving in the direction of electronic filing online. Within the last few months, New York and California have enacted legislation requiring the filing of campaign data by candidates on to the Internet for instantaneous viewing by the whole world! The Federal Election Commission recently contracted for the development of an electronic filing system.

    Democracy will be better served by fully using technology to communicate public information. More light on candidates can only help bring greater accountability to our democratic institutions.

    Bob Watada can be reached by e-mail at bob@csc.state.hi.us