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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1998

    Electronic Filing Update
    Craig Holman
    Project Director, Center for Governmental Studies

    It has often been said that technology has a life of its own. This is certainly true in the field of electronic filing and disclosure of campaign finance reports. The era of computer systems and the information highway has catapulted almost all states toward digitizing their systems of campaign finance reporting within the last few years. Only three states: Georgia, Nevada and South Dakota, have expressed little interest in developing a system of electronic reporting.

    The movement toward permitting candidates and committees to file financial reports electronically, through either diskette, modem or the Internet, and to disclose these reports to the public and press electronically, is a North American phenomenon. The movement appears to have caught hold so far only in Canada and the United States.

    Progressive Jurisdictions

    In Canada, one province (Ontario) has developed a fully operational system which includes both voluntary electronic filing via diskette and Internet access for the public. Elections Canada (federal) and Manitoba have nearly operational systems, while Alberta and British Columbia are studying the issue.

    In the United States, 15 jurisdictions have fully operational systems which include the means for both electronic filing and electronic disclosure, up from eight jurisdictions just last year. These jurisdictions include three cities: New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. About a dozen more states have nearly operational systems.

    Internet Filing

    Hawaii, Oklahoma and the city of Seattle have embarked on new ground. They are the first jurisdictions to permit candidates and committees to file through the Internet. Many jurisdictions have been reluctant to allow Internet filing of reports, due to security reasons. However, jurisdictions are not so timid about disclosing campaign reports to the public through the Internet. Currently, 24 jurisdictions provide or are planning on providing public access through the Internet, up from 15 last year.

    Most electronic reporting systems are voluntary, with only four jurisdictions mandating electronic reporting for most candidates and seven jurisdictions mandating electronic reporting for upper-level candidates and allowing voluntary electronic reporting for others. It is reasonable to expect a trend toward mandatory systems once the technology proves itself.

    Political Resistance

    It is often assumed that legislatures will usually offer intense political resistance to developing a system of instant public access to campaign financial records. Indeed, many of todayıs press accounts emphasize the political resistance to change in public disclosure. A Minneapolis Star & Tribune editorial, analyzing the slowness of the federal government to implement a comprehensive electronic reporting program, stated that the reason "of course, is political. There is no great groundswell among members of Congress to make their campaign books instantly accessible to critics, challengers -- and the public."

    In the year since this editorial was printed, the Federal Election Commission has in fact gone online with many of its campaign financial records. And political resistance in the states, though frequently present, has generally not succeeded in slowing the momentum toward electronic reporting. Legislatures throughout the nation -- either willingly or reluctantly -- have approved bills calling for electronic reporting (although Illinois, Utah and Vermont passed such bills but then declined to fund the programs). In some states where legislatures have refused to act, state elections agencies have gone ahead with developing electronic reporting without any statutory authorization. The program is simply too efficient and cost-effective for any elections agency to deny.

    One point is very clear: The notion that "there is not much out there" in the area of electronic reporting is a myth.

    Craig Holman can be reached at (310) 470-6590, ext. 115, or send e-mail to Holman@aol.com.