FEC system to track money electronically

The Federal Election Commission recently released a request for proposals to begin automating its receipt of campaign finance disclosures. Unlike other electronic transactions which woo end users with promises of gained efficiencies the FEC's initiative is more politically charged by the uncertainties of immediately revealing a candidate's financial backing.

The electronic-filing initiative which will track contributions - such as the $2 billion donated during the 1996 federal campaigns - was started in 1995 by legislation that enabled the FEC to accept disclosures electronically. By next year the FEC would like as many as 500 of the more than 3 000 campaign and political action committees (PACs) to file financial records electronically. Only four organizations have done so thus far.

The contract award due to be made next month challenges vendors to construct a secure but easily accessible way to electronically file - most likely via the Internet - the text-intensive financial reports.

Any technology issues however will become secondary to political concerns sources said. The success of the initiative may directly depend on the amount of positive press that candidates can gain by baring their souls financially. The trouble is that political coverage is unpredictable and that may lead to a general reluctance to change the way financial support is reported to the FEC.

There is some "political calculation involved " said Bob Biersack an FEC supervisory statistician in charge of the initiative. The FEC's efforts rely on a presumed underlying notion that "being open and disclosing is a good thing."

In Florida which is one of many states that like the FEC imposes federal disclosure requirements and has made electronic filing available candidates in some recent races believed electronic filing was a political advantage.

"Historically the big push has been created by the media " said Dean Phillips chief executive officer of Aristotle Industries maker of Campaign Manager and PAC Manager both of which are software tools used in campaign management. "I would suggest that in some of the more contested races " electronic filing became a campaign issue Phillips said. "An individual could say `I have released my information electronically and there it is.' That will drive up the stakes and that is what happened in Florida."

The FEC hopes a similar trend might occur nationwide so that the agency might begin to move away from its paper filing system. "The old system involves fairly elaborate coding and keying " Biersack said. "We get the equivalent of word processing documents on paper." Those reports are then entered into the FEC's database and made available in standardized format to the public.

The agency must ensure that a copy of original disclosures is available to its customers who visit the FEC's reading room or access information via its home page (www.fec.gov). Through an FEC-developed system users can pose specific queries to determine for example political trends and their relationship to the source of financial donations.

The FEC wants to preserve the integrity of that repository when it switches to early electronic filing so this year the FEC is starting slowly by accepting only diskettes containing information identical to that usually mailed in by committee treasurers. To date only a few organizations have begun filing electronically including OHM Corp. the Transportation Communication International Union and the Transportation Political League.

The very first to file electronically was the Wexler Group a Washington-area lobbying and consulting firm that runs a PAC active in congressional races. "We are striving for greater efficiency " said Ed Engle Wexler's treasurer. "We've had trouble in the past with our software in trying to get it to print properly."

Wexler agreed to be the first to test the system despite any initial misgivings about electronic disclosure Engle said. "Clearly there is a lot of concern and discussion over prompt disclosure " he said. "But who we contribute to is public information anyway."

But not every PAC may be as malleable. Phillips said that among most candidates and PACs there is a certain amount of trust associated with the current paper-based system. Migrating to a new system will create concerns that have nothing to do with issues such as security and the Internet he said. "The reality is that this is politics not a developers' convention " Phillips said.

Still Biersack said the FEC is concerned about security. "As far as security and reliability goes I have some real concerns with the Internet " he said. "One of the requirements in the contract is that whatever you propose you have to demonstrate that we can be sure that what people send us we will get and that the filer will also have absolute assurance. If the Internet is capable of that fine."

Meanwhile the FEC is continuing to test the waters allowing committees to come on board at their own pace. Choosing to focus on the technical aspects of electronic filing the agency next month will provide Senate campaign committees with a beta version of the software that the FEC will eventually put in the public domain. The software will allow even the smallest organizations to begin automating disclosures Biersack said.

In 1998 the FEC will finalize a file format for electronic submissions. "We want to get away from disk-only filing so there will be a mechanism in place to directly transmit filings " Biersack said. That mechanism is at the heart of the ongoing procurement for which Biersack declined to assess a value.

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