Campaign Finance Reform: States Move While Feds Fume

The sorry campaign finance spectacles of the 1996 elections sparked a fresh push for reform throughout the country. At the federal level, even the most basic changes have been blocked by elected officials who have the most to lose. In many states, however, reformers are off and running.

In just the first half of 1997, seven states-California, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin-have launched new initiatives to make campaign finance data available to citizens everywhere. These new efforts join 13 other states and the cities of San Francisco, Seattle and New York in bringing "digital sunlight" to campaign practices.

"People may disagree about how to best address the issue of money in politics," said Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation, "but improved public access to disclosure data is one issue where there is growing consensus." The principle is simple: End the traditional game of "hide the money" and move instead to a system based on "show me the money!"

I've just completed seven months of work as chairman of a blue-ribbon commission in Wisconsin to examine the state's campaign finance practices. Wisconsin, like most states, required candidates to file detailed reports about who contributed their campaign funds and how they spent them. But the law required that candidates file only a single paper copy of the report with the State Elections Board in Madison. So anyone who wanted to check a candidate's contribution records had to go to the capital during business hours, hope they could find a place to park and then hope that everyone who previously looked at the reports had left the paper in its proper order.

The logistical problems alone effectively prohibited most citizens (and even most reporters) from being able to review these key documents. Furthermore, some campaigns used sophisticated computer programs to scramble the names of contributors randomly. Finding anything in the reports-which could run to hundreds of pages-

often proved impossible. Key contributions in the last days of the campaign were not even reported until the final filing date months after the election.

The Wisconsin commission concluded that the state ought to set as a goal the immediate electronic filing of campaign finance information. As a candidate deposits a check or spends money, the activity ought to be reported to the State Elections Board across the Internet. As the State Elections Board receives the information, it ought to be posted on the World Wide Web for citizens anywhere in the state (or around the world, for that matter) to see.

The candidates benefit here too. As an added bonus, electronic reporting packages can check campaign finance reports before they are submitted to root out inadvertent mistakes. That saves candidates from fines and embarrassment. The programs also allow candidates to keep track of confidential but important campaign information, such as who is willing to help make get-out-the-vote calls or have a sign placed in their front yard.

Major hurdles remain to put such systems into place. State information technology and elections officials are working to develop trustworthy systems to authenticate the data. They need to prevent "dirty tricks" through tampering with on-line data. They seek to ensure the privacy of donors (for example, by including the name, city and ZIP code but leaving out the street address so electronic filing does not generate junk-mail lists). Most of all, reformers in many states are struggling for the funding needed to create and sustain these systems.

It would be folly to believe that electronic filing alone can solve the nation's campaign finance practices. Channeling the flow of money is as important as tracking it. But, by contrast, it is also folly to believe that any reform is possible without first creating an effective system of disclosure. And here, while feds fume, the states are leading the way.

-- Donald F. Kettl is director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Robert M. La Follette Institute of Public Affairs and the director of the Center for Public Management at the Brookings Institution. He chaired the Wisconsin Blue-Ribbon Commission on Campaign Finance Reform. He can be reached at [email protected]


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