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Research Report

Access Delayed Is Access Denied: Electronic Reporting of Campaign Finance Activity

  • Craig B. Holman, Ph.D.
Published: December 31, 2012

The experiences of New York in 1997 reflected a fast-paced trend spreading throughout the nation. New York joined dozens of other states in a movement that began to take shape only a few years earlier, but which has since embraced most governmental jurisdictions across North America: electronic filing and disclosure of campaign finance reports. The communications revolution ushered in by computer technology and the Internet has had a dramatic impact on the political landscape, and the communications revolution continues to transform the nature of politics and campaigns by providing voters with a degree of election information never before available. Key among this new body of readily available election information is tracking the trail of campaign contributions and expenditures. In more and more jurisdictions, computer technology and the Internet have been providing elections officials and, more importantly, the public with an almost instantaneous means to monitor the flow of money in politics.

The term “electronic reporting” of campaign finance data refers to a two-part process in which campaign finance reports are filed with elections officials and disclosed to the public through electronic means. Electronic filing and disclosure of campaign finance reports may be done through a variety of different electronic technologies, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Campaign finance reports may be filed electronically with elections officials via diskette, direct-dial modem, public computer terminal or scanned into an election agency’s computer database. The information may be disclosed to the public through any one or a combination of these electronic mediums. Though originally viewed with some naivete and some suspicion even today, one electronic medium nevertheless has emerged as the dominate method of both filing and disclosure of campaign finance reports: the Internet.

This research charts the rapid development of electronic reporting of campaign finance data among the states and federal government and offers the different experiences among these jurisdictions as lessons for others who choose to digitize campaign reporting. The problems encountered with traditional paper filings are examined and the benefits of electronic reporting are discussed. The evolution of various technologies for electronic filing and disclosure are also documented, providing an assessment of the “best” technologies for the task.

In approaching this study, the authors have conducted an annual survey of elections officials in local, state and federal governments as well as the provinces of Canada, the only jurisdictions in the globe at this point that are implementing electronic reporting systems. The survey has been administered each year since 1996, and thus provides an interesting picture of the dynamics of change in the field. Survey questions typically have asked which methods of electronic filing and disclosure are being employed or contemplated for each jurisdiction, problems and successes encountered and the costs associated with the program.